POPULATION CONTROL: Extermination of People



Souvenir 1995

Our concern about the population question arose when we started looking at contraceptive technology from the point of view women’s health and women’s right to birth control. The only framework within which ethics, or the right to a healthy life or for that matter the right to control one’s own fertility could be violated was the framework of population control. And this led to us questioning this framework which has been unquestioningly adopted by most people with a voice as axiomatic. We share our understanding, starting with the history to the present times when women are being made to swallow this bitter pill in the name of their own development.

The Reverend and his flock:

The famous law of population issued in 1798 by Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus warned that man’s propensity to beget, a geometric progression, was soon going to outstrip earth’s capacity to provide food, an arithmetic progression. Within five years he used this law to explain the poverty of the masses and the inability of the rich to ameliorate their circumstances. In a little known passage (expunged from the later editions of the essay) he proceeded to state that the poor had no right to live.

“A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society does not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work on the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour….The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting these strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.”

It is not insignificant that this law was issued closely following the French Revolution and to advocate the end of poor laws which stood in the way of capitalism as a feudal leftover for guaranteeing the minimum to the poor. Not only did Malthus have no data to back up his assertions, he was also proved wrong by history. Even now, nearly two centuries later, the earth is producing more than enough food to feed all its inhabitants. The reason for widespread hunger is not the shortage of food but lack of purchasing power and unequal distribution of resources.

To the extent that Malthus made population seem to be the cause of poverty and shortages and bestowed the natural right of the ‘haves’ to the bounties of this world, his theory has been modified, twisted and propagated to ease the conscience of the rich. The views of the elite have become more sophisticated and have promised rewards for the poor after the population has been controlled – almost as a sequential process. Paul Ehrlich expanded Malthusian vision and the battle became one of saving the earth. His formulation was “the battle to save our planet is not a battle for population control and environmental sanity, it is also a battle against exploitation, against war and against racism. But whatever be the cause it is a lost cause unless we control population.”

Ehrlich belongs to one stream of thinkers who at least show concern for the poor, the other neo- Malthusians were not so generous. But even in his generosity Ehrlich’s zeal for population control made him recommend coercive programmes. The others, did not reserve any hope for the poor at the end of the exercise. Eugine Black, former President of the World Bank and Lewis Strauss, founder member of the Population Council brought out ads warning against communism. “A world with mass starvation in under-developed countries will be a world of chaos, riots and war. And a perfect ground for communism.”

Ravenholt, the head of USAID’s population branch, in justifying US involvement in population matters argues, “without our trying to help these countries with their economic and social development, the world would rebel against the strong US commercial presence”. Other major organisations saw population as a threat to peace and security.

Dissenting Voices:

Opposition to Malthusian thought came from Marx and Engles. According to them, a human being is not a burden on this earth but in fact is always capable of producing more than his/her personal needs. If this had not been the case, humanity would have perished as no one would have been able to raise children. What seems to be over-population is in fact dispossession of the masses from their means of production.

Not only this, according to Marx and Engels, it is in the interest of capital to keep part of the work-force unemployed and hence competing against each other to depress wage levels. Capital by its nature creates unemployment through deployment of machines. In their view, over population is a problem of the capitalist society. By themselves food and population were always capable of balancing out through the intervention of technology, whose development like that of population is geometric, each body of knowledge growing on the base of that possessed by the previous generation.

Obsession with Numbers!

It is difficult to pin point the preoccupation with numbers, but for India which has been the leader (with the longest and financially the largest history of Family Planning Programmes), some time in the early sixties people came to be regarded as a hindrance to development and not a resource any more. Malini Karkal, a demographer, traces this change to the beginning of the Third Five Year Plan of the country starting in 1962. From family planning for the individual, it became a numbers game for the nation, where percentage growth in GDP seemed to be directly offset by percentage growth in population. The underlying thesis was that the less the number of people to share the fruits of development, the more the fruit available per capita. Such an understanding completely denied that people produce the fruits of development, while per capita figures tend to hide the lack of distributive justice, and a rise in per capita income is no guarantee of improved life for the masses.

Unfortunately, the concern of nation states of “population for the sake of development” had to be soon abandoned when the neo-colonial linkages were again strengthened. For most LACAAP (Latin American, Carribean, African, Asian and Pacific) countries, development had to be given a back seat to provide raw materials to the North for debt servicing, debts which were an inheritance from the colonial past or taken by the ruling elite to be siphoned off from the country, debts which were not put to productive use. In the seventies, the LACAAP countries were more united and in the World Population Conference held in Bucharest in 1974, refused to put the blame on the impoverished masses, but on unequal trade terms, when bullied by the North into pressing for population stabilization. China reminded every body that of all things in the world, people are the most precious, while India heavily criticized the high consumption of resources in the North.

From the seventies to the eighties, there was yet another shift taking place. So far the promoter of population control had been the US Government. It was notorious for setting targets for achievement in this field and to link bilateral aid to the population programmes and policies of receiving countries. USAID remains the single largest donor of population assistance and there is evidence to show that it is aiming to surpass its past performance now that the stagnation imposed by the Bush Government acting under pressure from the right to life lobby is over. In countries with high population growth rates the USAID has always included population control as a factor in its discussions with the governments. It shifted its focus to multilateral agencies in the UN and otherwise (IMF and World Bank) where it wielded tremendous power to make its allies in war its allies in population control also.

While the UN system had to be more egalitarian the World Bank and the IMF openly espoused the cause of free trade and the financial interests of the North. These institutions, unlike the UN also wielded far more power over nation states because they provided loans. With loans went conditionalities which had no regard for the sovereignty of nation states at the receiving end. Conditionalities, the ultimate form being the Structural Adjustment Programmes (or SAP) literally SAPPED these countries and multiplied manifold the miseries of the masses. Conditionalities forced population policies and population control targets on nations, they forced reduced governmental spending in the social sector and played havoc with the resource base of the country. Their objective was not to ensure the repayment of debt and interest but to ensure better trading terms for the North, and to secure better markets for goods produced by the North. Population control was now divorced from its goals of development.

The growing concern with the degradation of the environment following the plunder of natural resources, carried out directly by highly consumer oriented societies, and indirectly by the poor who were left with no alternatives, also found a convenient scapegoat in the growing population of the LACAAP countries. Population as the cause of poverty which degrades environment became the theme song of the 90s. Today no one has an answer to the question of what level of population this earth can support while maintaining sustainability, because use of natural resources is definitely not governed by the number of people but is as much determined by the relationship of people with each other and with nature. But certain issues are becoming clear: While the North wants free access to every market of investment and consumption, it does not reserve this freedom for people of the LACAAP countries to settle on its own territory. Hence while the sustainability of the planet is under threat the answer has to be found at the level of the individual nation state i.e. what size of population can each nation state support given its resource base.

In the LACAAP countries, by and large, population is increasingly being projected as a big threat and coercive policies are in place which largely aim to reduce birth rates. Most of the countries which gained independence after the second World War have failed to meet the aspirations of their people. By and large they have been ruled by a small elite which has only paid a lip service to people’s needs while controlling a large part of the nation’s wealth. Under the circumstances of growing miseries of vast sections of the population, the ruling classes have found a convenient excuse in the bogey of overpopulation. The elite of LACAAP countries has thus actively played into the hands of the population control establishment which has been increasingly using population control as conditionality for giving loans. As such the interests of the elite of LACAAP countries are more in tune with the interests of the North as compared to their own people.

Standing the issue on its head:

In socialist countries (or in the erstwhile Socialist countries) and China, population policies have been promoted equally vigorously and at times coercively. While most countries such as the USSR honoured women having more children and restricted the supply of contraceptives, some like China followed anti-natalist policies. China introduced a single child norm, with elements of coercion built into the decision. But unlike market economies these societies did attempt to socialize child care, health and other social services. They also attempted to narrow the gap between different sections of the population, giving the majority a better material life. Yet one may question whether the government at all has a role in controlling the fertility of individuals. In the context of the state trying to provide minimum needs for all and attempting planned development such an intervention by the state can be justified at least partly - authority and responsibility are commensurate with each other. Whereas, with the state leaving everything to the invisible hand that guides the market and society, its role in controlling the birth rate is questionable.

For a long time it has been recognized that improvement in the status of women leads to a smaller family size. High status of women as reflected in education, mobility, employment etc. meant lower infant mortality, higher acceptance of contraception and resulted in averting births. This understanding was used to complete this illogical circle:





OBJECTIVE- Family Planning

PROGRAMME - Development

Socio-economic development began to be sought because this would lead to smaller family size. Kerala and Sri Lanka were heralded as signs of this possibility. However limited this analysis, at least in doing so the proponents of population control were not being anti-people in any manifest manner. Yet in the same country, USAID is even today promoting a population control project which does not even rely on inputs in health to make family planning more acceptable. Instead its views averted births as the net gain of money saved in the social sector which would otherwise be needed to be spent on schools, hospitals etc. While euphemisms of women’s development are exchanged among countries at UN conferences the reality is of population control with contraceptive marketing as the basic ingredient. Such projects are supported even more widely by the World Bank.


For the population control lobby the only issue at the centre is lowering of birth rate while all other issues stand at the periphery and are evaluated in terms of their impact on population. Be it the status of women or rural development or child survival – the issue has value if it can have the desired impact on birth rate. In such a context those opposed to the population control lobby are also prone to arguing on the desired impact of pro people policies on birth rate, hoping somehow that they can tilt the balance in favour of people without redefining the centre and periphery. Such attempts are continually being made by feminists by representing themselves in various Committees of the establishment of population control. Women’s organizations are participating in trying to bring women’s agenda in places which are inherently anti-people and view people as mere numbers. Yet for the population control establishment the alliance with feminists has resulted in gaining respectability and it has not wasted any time in adopting the concern for people as part of its jargon. While the programmes of population control have not changed for the better a large number of feminists have adopted the terminology of population control and have relegated the interests of women to a secondary position.

Recently a lot of feminist writing has appeared about what is termed as “feminist population policy”, which is a contradiction in terms as gross as “people oriented genocide”. Terminology notwithstanding, Merge Berer, one of the proponents of a feminist population policy, has outlined the dimensions of such a policy. It includes giving women free choice to decide the number of children. The policy will take care of poverty, and also assume social responsibility for the old, the sick, and children. It would change the role of women, provide them with jobs, stop concentrating on women for contraception etc. In other words, the policy is a revolutionary redefinition of the society itself. Why should it be called a population policy at all? Population policy after all is a loaded term which renders people invisible and recognizes and accepts the role of the government in matters relating to family size. Unless the government commits itself to the welfare of the people and of women in particular how can it meet the demands of a feminist population policy? In other words by advocating such a policy in an essentially anti-people set up feminists are opening the scope of a dialogue where they will have to settle for a diluted version of a population policy which is going to leave structural imbalances untouched, which have been creating the problems of lack of social security to begin with.

Unholy Alliances:

It would not be out of place here to put the various forces behind population programmes in context. The forces comprise of US and other donor agencies of Western Europe. Together, they form an array of intergovernmental agencies, NGOs, private companies etc. The sum total of their work ranges from introduction of life threatening contraceptive devices, funding research on population control, introducing population studies in academic curricula, striking terms with the governments of LACAAP countries, to inundating information to create paranoia amidst people at large about the horrors of population growth. The interests of people certainly are not significant. Substantial amounts of money, muscle power and technology are being provided by the countries of the North. These governments which promote their overseas aid in population related areas are not pro-LACAAP countries. They have a distinct racial and ideological bias against the poor as much within their own countries as outside.

The growing importance of World Bank and IMF and their world view, have made the game of population control very open. They do not even consider it necessary to do a positive sales job to women of the LACAAP countries. Gone are the days when contraceptives were linked to women’s freedom, improved health status and empowerment. The buzz-word of today is cost effectiveness in bringing about population stabilization. Family size limitation is now taking precedence over all basic needs.

India’s population policy:

The Indian Government started showing its true preoccupation with the numbers question in Indira Ghandi’s days. Unfortunately for the government, the only technological answer was of male vasectomy, which could put a full stop to children without complicated surgery. Men did not tolerate this and voted the government out of power. Hastily, new technology was adopted and laparoscopic female sterilization became the order of the day. For more than a decade now, women have been subjected to technological onslaught to make them incapable of having children. Disincentives and incentives were the mainstay of the programme. Workers were penalized for not fulfilling targets, and women made to foreclose their reproductive options to pay back petty loans and or get casual employment. In the ’80s, women employed by the government had their right to paid maternity leave curtailed if they went in for a third child.

But it was in the nineties that things really changed when the Indian government undertook the structural Adjustment Programme. The World Bank openly claims that at this juncture countries are more open to influence in matters relating to population control and India showed its willingness for it in no uncertain terms.

In August 1993 the Government of India set up an Expert Committee to recommend a population policy to be adopted for the country. This Committee gave its recommendations in May, 1994. These recommendations are yet to be adopted by the Parliament. The women’s movement has been the sole vociferous opponent of draconian policies and measures in this field for the last decade as well as in this case. In other quarters, either the propaganda of the population bomb has made serious inroads or is considered to be apolitical in character.

Even with respect to the functioning of the Committee, women’s organizations attempted to make a strong influence. This influence resulted in the Committee adopting a soft rhetoric but the measures proposed by it did not change in character and have suggested debarring of people from jobs, elected office etc. solely on the basis of the number of children and deploying the army to effect population stabilization.


This statement is in response to the request of the Expert Committee set up by the Government of India to formulate a national population policy. It is not as if the government has not had a population policy so far. It has been one of fertility control, pursued relentlessly, and at times coercively, through three decades, bringing disrepute to the family planning programme, compromising women’s health, and accelerating the already declining sex-ratio. Now we find that more of the same recipe is being institutionalized through disincentives, and constitutionally questionable legislation. Monetary incentives have already proved to be a corrupting influence and added economic pressure to women’s powerlessness.

The women’s movement has all along been in favour of family planning and has advanced women’s control over their fertility. Pursuing demographic goals however, is not synonymous with family planning. We do not accept that population growth is mainly responsible for all India’s ills, i.e., poverty, environmental degradation, etc. The government however, refuses to recognize that the population rise is a direct consequence of increasing inequities and dispossession among the majority and seeks to address the symptom of population rise without addressing the root cause….

…to see population control as a precondition for the reduction of poverty goes counter to the history of demographic transition in other parts of the world and against the living reality of India’s poor majority. Further, to see women as primarily responsible for the increase in population and to devise methods to control their fertility at all costs, is a position that the women’s movement in India can never accept.”

Distorting Equations

While the Expert Committee has stated that the rich are responsible for using more than a fair share of resources, while it has acknowledged that the rich have grown richer and the poor have grown poorer, while it has acknowledged that sustainability of development and human life is a concern – it has made no recommendations to curtail the consumption of the elite. The stress is entirely on containing the numbers of the poor. In a country like India where the top 1.5% of the population is responsible for the consumption of 75% of the resources we fail to understand how tackling the poor and starved majority is going to solve any problems.

While the Committee has made a categorical statement about no problem being solved unless the population problem has been tackled it has ignored the fact that the government for the past decade has made no attempts at solving the problems of the country and has in fact made the poor pay the price for the growing affluence of a miniscule minority. The Expert Committee has forgotten that the government has legalized smuggling, reduced the excise duty on consumer durables, given endless scope to launder black money, sold off public assets for a pittance and economized by raising the PDS prices for the poor. It has allowed capital intensive technology to enter the country, it has given industries so much freedom to close that employment in the private sector has been shrinking in absolute terms but the government has been allowed to go scot free while the poor are being told to curtail their fertility without which the Expert Committee stresses they can not even hope to improve their lot.

In fact the structural adjustment programme is unleashing the very forces which are responsible for a boom in population, by making child survival difficult, by removing measures of social security, by lowering effective wages. But the Expert Committee chooses to ignore all this.

The Measures

The Committee has taken great pride that it has held consultations with many groups and has thus adhered to democratic norms and has urged the government to carry this process of dialogue even further. It has also taken great pride in the fact that it is asking that the planning process be decentralized in this year when democratically elected Panchayats will assume office. And yet it has condoned the most unconstitutional act of Haryana and Rajasthan state governments which have made more than two children a disqualification for contesting elections to the Panchayati Raj institutions. In doing so they have made a mockery of their whole process of decentralization by disabling a majority of women and men from holding public office given the fact that the total fertility rate in India is estimated to be around 3.6. This law has been enacted in today’s context where women have no say in the number of children they have and are being allowed in the decision making process through reservation of seats. This recommendation of the Committee in fact makes it a crime or an act of madness to have more than two children because at present these are disqualifications from contesting elections.

In another place, having more than two children has been turned into a disqualification against holding a job in the organized sector. As if jobs are favours and fertility is a consideration above having skills and qualifications. It recommends that victims of child marriage be held responsible and not allowed to gain employment – strange indeed because the perpetrators of this crime are only punished with a maximum sentence of three months.

While the disincentives suggested by the Expert Committee are definite, in the same breath it never ceases to repeat that the programme should be associated with a positive image, it should provide choice to people, and should do everything to raise the status of women, in fact, to make it equal to men. It is a different thing that the status of women is supposed to be instrumental in raising the age at marriage and use of contraception. Women are thus turned into variables to be manipulated for achieving population stabilization.

Some of the measures suggested by the Expert Committee actually make it appear somewhat ignorant of the laws of the land. One among these is encouraging adoption. Personal laws govern adoption at present and do not allow all communities to adopt children and even otherwise adoption is no easy matter. Similarly, before disqualifying young girls from jobs because of early marriage the Committee has not paused to think of the conflict this position has with personal laws which define age at marriage.

In other places the Committee has shown ignorance of the reality of a class-divided society. It has suggested that the Panchayat draw a population goal based on resource availability. Without redistribution of land and irrigation facilities or changing the cropping pattern to meet to the needs of local residents there is no way that there can be harmony between resources, consumption and population. For instance, can a rich farmer be asked by the local Panchayat to use farm labour as opposed to farm machinery? Prices which are fixed nationally, whether for farm inputs or outputs will render any planning ability at the local level even more meaningless.

In the last four decades much damage has been done by population education. Unemployment is blamed on growing numbers. Today, the middle class already holds the poor responsible for their poverty, environmental degradation and shortages. Yet the Expert Committee wants to tap even more sources for spreading the word around. Such miseducation has already meant that gross violations of human rights are glossed over if they are dealing with fertility control, if not welcomed as necessary steps. The parameters of environment consumption numbers game have to change before it is too late to salvage the situation. Media messages for promoting contraceptive usage are no more than propaganda literature which misinforms contraceptive users, and false dreams of happy small family only mislead people.

Similar is the discipline of population research. It has not yielded anything meaningful so far because no one is even interested in finding any solution. More money in this field is unlikely to change anything. If at all, money is urgently required to do research and action research in natural resource management and conservation but this is not the thrust of this policy.

The proposal of pooling together all funds from bi-lateral and multi-lateral really stinks. This will mean that funds are spent along the dictates of IMF and World Bank resulting in an even greater tilt towards population control as compared to social development. With the Commission making actual allocations, these agencies will continue with their control but no one would be able to point a finger at them.

The stress on male contraception is welcome. But we are not interested in accepting adventurous recommendations of the Expert Committee which is ready to allow all contraceptives provided there is informed choice. Provider controlled methods are unacceptable at all costs. The Committee should also do some cost benefit analysis of appropriateness of a technology for a poor country like ours. Our country cannot just afford research into all methods of contraception just as its citizens cannot be provided with a menu card at every meal.

While the goals have been expanded beyond fertility rate the question of livelihood has been left out. The opportunity to do socially useful productive work and to receive a fair compensation for it is the key to the sustainability of any social development effort. Our people cannot live on World Bank loans or on donor charity. At any rate what good is their education and health if they are unable to contribute to social good.

The Expert Committee has made no recommendations to change the basic structure of exploitive relationships. Unless this happens we do not foresee any possibility of working towards common goals.


Whatever be the content of a population policy one thing stands clear, it is a policy which treats human beings as numbers for meeting some superior objective. To the extent that it advocates positive measures they are also a part of social policy – there is no earthly reason to make women’s education a part of the population policy as this is the subject of education policy, we do not need to link even contraception with the question of population as it has a rightful place in the health policy. In so far as coercive measures are concerned these can be totally dispensed with whether they deal with limiting access to jobs or deployment of the army the society can do without them.

This is not to say that the earth can support any number of human beings. But the hysteria has to be avoided because there is room enough for every one. What needs to be curtailed is the profit and expansion oriented economic system which is destroying the only home of humanity by ruthless exploitation of natural resources. What needs to be curtailed are distributive injustices which make half the people of India undernourished even as the country produces adequate food. What needs to be promoted is faith in human rationality because people do not bring children into this world to starve them or watch them die but to love and cherish them. And the population will definitely balance itself out once an equitable socio-economic structure is in place.

In fact the population will balance itself out any way as per expert opinion and that too far short of what can be sustained. The FAO for instance estimates that India can support up to 2.3 billion human beings with intensive agriculture, and 1.7 billion with some improvements in agriculture.