Yesterday, in Chandannagar, we came across a long forgotten scene, where a rickshaw with a loudspeaker, went rattling by through alleys and by-lanes of that crowded little old town, blaring a public announcement from a pre-recorded audio tape. Such means of information dissemination is not new and not forgotten, we frequently have them at our place, especially during the festivities, advertising the launch of a new showroom or informing of discount sales in some local garments or electronics shops. It was the nature and the content of the announcement that was new, alive after a long time from being buried under the interests of politics.
The megaphone was advising people to adopt a two child policy and practice birth control.
When we were kids ourselves, two decades back, this would not have sounded new to me. Back then we used to have frequent infomercials on television (and perhaps also on radios; I cannot positively say since we, as kids, found it less appealing than television, for obvious reasons) encouraging people to adhere to a two child policy. For a very brief period during the early ‘90s, family planning and care for the girl child were the two most prominent public awareness campaigns that always were allotted a slot in the commercial breaks aired during television programmes. Some of these infomercials were animated and some enactments.
I particularly remember three such infomercials; two of which were on the subject of family planning. The first one showed how a village man was mobbed by his army of little children, all vying to hitch a ride up on his back and the poor man buckling under the weight of all the jumping and climbing prats, looking enviously and disconsolately at his smiling neighbour as he went by with his two daughters, gay as a lark. The message was clearly and quite humorously sent home.
The second ad, was more contemplative and gave me my first lesson in statistical probability, unbeknownst to me at that time. It showed the dilemma of a man who had four sons and among whom he must divide his arable land. The infomercial showed on the screen a square which was then divided into four small squares, which was again divided into four smaller squares and so on, indicating that if each person in any generation, on average had four sons, there would be no land left anymore to be divided equally among the sons in a definite generation and people would literally have not an inch of space to stand on. Very subtly, Malthus’s high philosophy was brought into the ambit of public knowledge in an easily comprehensible way. And I got my first glimpse of statistics.
These advertisements, rather public awareness generating infomercials, were paid for by the government and issued in public interest by the I&B ministry and often by the Department of Health. Besides, commercial advertisements on tools and techniques of contraception were encouraged by the government. As a consequence, we, as kids, were relentlessly embarrassing our elders with questions on what ‘Nirodh’ was or if ‘MalaD’ was for general consumption. In most houses, programmes on television and radio, mostly being limited to those aired on government owned and operated channels, viz., Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR – Akashvani) ensured that these public awareness messages were spread far and wide.
And then came the Cable TV. A glamorous seductress with no accountability for truth or for realism, nor any responsibility for the enduring wellbeing of the audience, it, of course, had no obligation for spreading any helpful message and creating any awareness that would benefit the common public. Rather, by an unabashed promotion of consumerism and egocentrism, cable television has isolated the common people into narrow confines of self-centred thoughts, completely disjointed from the outside world, where each person, even if aware of the error on his own part, is made to believe that his actions don’t have a bearing on the wider whole. So, I may go on begetting till I have a son, what is it that to you? Trust me, there are still plenty of instances of such antiquated ideals among city people, even among highly educated professional ones.
Thus we are, at 1.33 billion1, the second most populous country in the world, with a birth rate of 29 per minute2. 50% of our population is below 30, young, eager but with a future uncertain of a solid means of sustenance (youth unemployment rate in India, as of 2014, is 12.9%)3. There is little wonder why India is seeing a spurt of violent agitations and strikes across its length and breadth. All that young energy needs a vent somehow.
Even after more than thirty years of implementation of its ‘one-child per family’ policy, China still tops the list of the most populous countries in the world. Its yearly population change rate, however has gone way down from around 2.7% in the 1970s to about 0.4% in 20164. If India were to continue with its population control strategies unchanged, in merely 10 years it shall supersede China and claim the title of the world’s most populous country5. If we were to think in extremely hypothetical terms, considering the whole of India was accessible and available for a person to occupy, in 10 years, the area of a football field would have to support 5 individuals (physical space available per head). Now, imagine the scenario when 5 such individuals themselves give birth to 5 children each and the area of the football field has to be divided into 25 spaces in just the next generation. Just what the TV ad twenty years ago predicted, and cautioned Indians against. It would get a bit too crowded, don’t you think?
But of course, this is an oversimplification and real life scenarios will deviate greatly from this hypothetical one. However, the current trend of population growth tends to point towards a deviation for the worse. Unless, active efforts are adopted to try and harness our population.
The announcement through a recorded tape that we heard in Chandannagar yesterday gives me hope that after a long time, perhaps the government has finally put aside petty interests and stepped up to take affirmative actions. Or, perhaps, I am being unreasonably hopeful. After all, governance in India, at all levels, is hardly ever out of the shadows cast by sectarian appeasement politics, and sects, of any faith, tend to adopt a biased and adamant unscientific outlook when it comes to birth control and family planning. If we had let nature run its course with our populations, we should not have had to worry about its control. Since we interfere with that, there must be ways to offset the damaging changes our interference brings. I will never understand how saving life, even snatching a person from the jaws of death, or keeping him alive via a ventilator, not an act against ‘God’ while preventing unnecessary pregnancies, a sacrilege. This duality in our faith system is one of the main reasons why India is yet to shake off her ‘developing nation’ tag.
I would have liked to finish my rambling here. But aren’t you curious about the third infomercial from my childhood that I remember? It was not on family planning, not directly at least, but it too has a lot of bearing on this population problem of ours. It was on the value of a girl child.
The ad showed a girl running excitedly to her grandmother (paternal) and saying she had just spotted a crow on the roof. Her grandmother, furious, shoos her off muttering to herself it has to be a pigeon, else her daughter-in-law, the girl’s mother, would be birthing a girl again. I was about seven then. Old enough to make the connection, too young to realize, somewhat with a shock, that girl child was an unwelcome thing, a crow. And like a crow, nobody would accord her any privilege, any courtesy. Not even women, older crows. The ad went on further to show, through a chart, how it’s the father’s sperm rather than the mother’s ovum, which determined if the baby was a girl or a boy (I believe this was my first lesson in Biology!) and that a girl could do what a boy could, sometimes even better (keeping in tune with the message of the ad, the doctor who explained this was a lady).
In twenty years since then, although the sex ratio has improved, India still has a large imbalance when it comes to the number of females per thousand males in the country6. And there is still a large disparity in the level of education and employment among women and men7, essentially making women second class Indian citizens.
The irony is, educating women is key to population control8. By denying women their basic rights to education and employment, our parochial social and sectarian principles ensure that our populations go on increasing unchecked.
I don’t remember if the infomercial ended on a happy note, whether the crone of a granny changed her mind in favour of a girl grandchild, but in real life, this attitude has hardly changed. A girl is still a crow, fit for child bearing and keeping house, and any ideas she might have of having an accomplished life on her own, is an offence. Why else would this girl I knew, and cared about, this tiny little thing who was the only girl I knew, who showed interest in books as a toddler, be driven to suicide for denying to marry and ‘settle’ at 18?
Will announcing through megaphones, advertising through infomercials make people change their view of women, of a girl child? The one-child policy in China has created a skewed sex ratio9 which is what, I am apprehensive, will be the scenario, once India actively and officially launches a strict one or a two child policy. Unless strict anti sex-selection policies are simultaneously implemented. And women literacy is encouraged.
For a country independent for 69 years, we sure are walking steadily backwards. Digital media of today with all its craze and connectivity, has failed to bring to the masses the truth that was so beautifully showcased in those low quality infomercials, twenty years ago.
19th July, 2016