Newsletter Apr 1996

Turn on the TV these days and chances are you'll see a well- known figure telling you that "until now the government has been planning family welfare programmes, but this year it wants us, ‘the people’ to determine our own welfare programme. Our ideas are to be sent to the nearest Primary

Health Centre or the Secretary, Department of Family Welfare". Then, we are called upon to join together and make this ‘a people's revolution’.

What's wrong with that, you might ask. But before we raise our hopes at the thought that this heralds an era of increased peoples’ participation in government, it would be worthwhile to consider a few points. This scheme is promoted by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare -a wing of the government that is best known for its aggressive family planning programmes and coercion of people (primarily the women) of the country. So, what could be better to give its reputation a facelift than a campaign that projects it as being concerned about peoples’ opinions? Or is this just the final acknowledgement of the Department's failure to meet its targets?

Otherwise, why does the government want our suggestions only on family welfare? After all, it never consults us before taking a loan to build a Sardar Sarovar Dam, inviting foreign investment into the country to colonise the nation for a second time, sending military and para-military forces to repress our own people, selling invaluable national assets for a pittance to international finance capital, or even taking hawala money. Far from seeking our opinion, it doesn't even think it necessary to consult the Parliament before auctioning the nation's future by signing the WTO treaty.

We all know exactly what the government means by ‘family welfare’: promoting or even forcing the use of contraceptives to restrict family size to Hum do, hamare do or as current propaganda says, Hum do, hamara ek. But who says that definition is enough? In our opinion family welfare is about the basic health for all, hygienic conditions to live in, clean drinking water, education, employment, security for the aged, work for the youth and the future of our children. But in the eyes of government, all this is not part of family welfare. They are different issues to be dealt with by different departments, and in the bargain, it is our families that pay the price.

Over the last few years, the government has taken an enormous amount of loan [to the tune of Rs 3, 40,500 crores] from international institutions in the name of ‘taking the nation into the 21st century’. Yet, all that the people of the country have seen in terms of betterment, is Structural Adjustment and a boom in consumer goods of all kinds. So, while private companies have the pleasure of making more and more money in this newly liberalised environment, ironically the government is spending its money repaying loans and running its basic programmes of primary health, education and ‘family welfare’ with further loans. Yet, the government itself has benefited from the phenomenal growth in numbers of TV and satellite revolution. It uses every chance to claim that not just the family, the whole country is happier today. There is greater brotherhood among communities [never mind if Babri Masjid is demolished], more employment for the youth [ignore the fact that factories are closing every day], more hope among the poor [who now look at life through the rose tinted glasses of a Ray-Ban] and greater joy among young women of the nation [who seem to prefer pictures of the Prime Minister to those of Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar]. And let's not forget, the economy is also healthier [even if you can't afford to keep pace with the rising prices of milk to keep you children healthy].

But we digress. The government is concerned about family welfare, not welfare of the people. And it wants our participation. But if it is really interested in peoples’ participation, why doesn't it strengthen the Panchayati Raj system? Instead of encouraging people to become part of the process, it prohibits women who have more than 2 children from contesting elections. And given that Indian women have an average of 3.6 children, this rule excludes the majority of women in the country. So how is the government ever going to find out what they really want?

Anyway, all this talk of our participation in determining the direction of the programme is nothing more than an eyewash. In its agreements with the World Bank, and several other bi-lateral and multi—lateral agencies, the government has already committed itself to abide by their directives on the Indian family welfare programme for the next 10-12 years. For example, its agreement with the World Bank includes the propagation of long acting hormonal contraceptive injections for women. And conditions for ‘aid’ from the USA include the widespread distribution of American contraceptives, with total disregard for their side-effects and their unsuitability for Indian women. In the face of such pressures, how much can our opinions matter?

Besides political participation, contraception is in fact, the other area in which women's opinions just don’t matter to the government. Its objectives are to somehow find ways of preventing women from having children for a length of time. Hence, its focus on long acting contraceptives like Norplant, Depo Provera, Anti Fertility Vaccine etc. The other advantage is that women have no control over these methods once they have been implanted or administered, making it easier for the government to achieve its family planning targets.

And yet, the task before the government is not easy. As part of the Structural Adjustment Programme it has to show a fall in the rate of population growth. So, besides harmful contraception it also tried to bring in a Population Policy that sanctioned the use of para-military force to implement the family welfare programme, and punish women bearing more than 2 children by denying them jobs, withdrawing their ration card and other social security measures. All this in a country where ministers guilty in the hawala scam are all set to go scot free!

At this point it becomes relevant to ask why the World Bank and other international financial institutional are so concerned about population in countries like ours.

The promise of health and prosperity at bearing just two children is hollow. In fact, the talk about population explosion and growing numbers (especially in the developing countries) ruining the environment is just a defense against the overconsuming lifestyles in developed countries. In their own internal documents, welfare of the people of the South just do not feature. All they see in the growth of our numbers is a threat to their security, the racial 'balance' in the world and favourable international trade relations. But for us the welfare of our family is important. That's why it is so important for us to respond in large numbers and demand:

  • FAMILY WELFARE be redefined to include basic provisions of health, education etc.

  • The future of our children be secured

  • Legislation prohibiting women's candidature in Panchayati elections to be withdrawn immediately to make peoples’ participation meaningful.

  • The harmful state-controlled focus on contraceptive choices to be replaced by making effective and safe barrier methods available to women.

  • Endless research of harmful contraceptives on the women of the country to be put to an immediate stop.