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Rural India can't bear more children

Births of a Nation: Biharipur has become a microcosm of population growth run amok

By John Stackhouse
First published Mar. 3, 1994

Biharipur, India

With nine children in his adobe hut, Shankar Lal was so thrilled to discover birth-control pills last year that he started to take them himself: 21 white ones, followed by seven red ones, every month.

"The doctor said they were for both of us, both me and my wife," the bearded, partly deaf farmer shouted as his children, aged 2 to 16, raced around the house's interior courtyard, where the buffalo sleep. "So I started to take them, every night with warm milk."

The only problem with Shankar Lal's enthusiasm is that his wife's year- long supply of pills, which she stores in their straw roof, is about to run out, six months ahead of schedule. And she does not plan to refill the prescription.

"The doctor said the pills were good for one year," his wife, Ram Sri, said resolutely.

In one house after another in Biharipur, it's easy to see why so many population-control schemes have failed in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

When contraceptives reach the village, which is rare, most adults don't know how to use them.

Sterilization campaigns have spread terror through the minds of young women. And the auxiliary nurse and midwife who is supposed to visit Biharipur every month to preach family planning and distribute condoms has made the journey only once since last July.

The result has been a population explosion, village-style, and a microcosm of one of the most pressing development problems anywhere.

Since India gained independence in 1947, no household has grown more in Biharipur than Shankar Lal's harijan (untouchable) family.

When the village was only a hamlet, his mother, who says she was never given a name, gave birth to four boys and a daughter, all before she reached age 20. Then her husband died, cutting in half her expected family size.

Her first son, Lakahan Das, had a son who died at childbirth, a son who survived and then a daughter who died as an infant. Lakahan Das's wife, only 25 at the time, then died giving birth to a fourth baby.

Her second son, Lala Ram, had three boys and three girls. Demographically, it was the ideal family: the requisite son to care for the parents in their old age; a spare son in case the first one turned out to be a drunk, a scoundrel, an inept farmer, or all three; and a third to guard against the village's high infant-mortality rate.

The next boy, Shankar Lal, had five girls before two sons came. Waiting for the two boys to survive infancy, he and his wife had two more girls. Then they discovered birth-control pills.

"If I didn't have the boys, who would take care of me when I'm old?" Ram Sri asked, echoing the worry of almost every woman in Biharipur. "Who will feed me when I'm old? Who will take care of my land? The government? Will they take care of me if I stop having children?"

And so the extended family grows. In the harijan household, there are now 34 people, where there were once two - and 28 of them are below the age of 30.

While family planning may seem alien to the harijans, the family's accelerated growth has been planned very carefully in its own way. In each house, another plate of rice is always available, and clothes are handed from family to family and child to child. Indeed, by helping in the fields, cleaning the house and cooking, children quickly become net contributors to the household economy.

But the long-term costs can be devastating, as family assets are split, and then split again into marginal claims. The second generation of Biharipur's poor have become sharecroppers, and the third generation are in town working in brick kilns or pedalling rickshaws.

The greatest burden, however, lies with Biharipur's women, whose health deteriorates with each child.

Rahisa, a haggard woman whose age is impossible to guess, recently gave birth to her 10th child in 20 years, a fragile boy who was born two months prematurely. No longer able to breastfeed, Rahisa bottlefeeds cow's milk to the boy, and watches him suffer persistent diarrhea and gas.

Rahisa has seen four of her children die, and one be stricken by polio, but she goes on, uneducated and unempowered to control her own health. Anemic, she is now what Bhagwati, the village midwife, calls "an empty cage."

Worried about Biharipur's population, but seemingly unconcerned about its people, the state government of Uttar Pradesh has launched myriad family-planning programs, each with little success.

Rather than forcing women to stop having children, most population experts agree that governments would do better to focus on girl's education. With more schooling, girls would marry later and understand better the concept of spacing births. They would better understand how to care for their health, and their children's, too, allowing them to escape nature's cruel demographic lottery. And they might garner more respect from their husband's family, the source of pressure for many young couples to have more children.

In Biharipur, only two girls attend school in the neighbouring village.

One of the many girls who has never opened a school book is Rahisa's eldest daughter, Akila, who at 15 is to be married next week. Akila wants a small family - why would she want to repeat her mother's suffering? - but she knows that the choice is not hers.

"Whatever my husband's family wants, I'll do," she said, sewing clothes for her marriage to a boy she has never seen.

Barely past puberty, Akila will soon participate in the launching of another generation in India. As her mother knows, the size of that generation won't depend so much on contraceptives and family planning as on society's attitude toward Akila, and Akila's toward herself.

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