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India counts heads and decides to push birth control again

Preliminary Indian census figures showing a population increase of nearly 25 percent over the past decade have jolted India's officialdom and spurred new calls for intensified family planning efforts.

The provisional 1981 census results pinned India's exploding population at 684 million -- 12 million more than government projections.

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Worse, from the point of view of planners worrying about feeding, sheltering, clothing, and employing India's impoverished millions, was the revelation that $ 850 million worth of birth-control measures over the past 10 years have made only a minuscule dent in the population growth rate.

The second most populous nation in the world after China, India grew by 136 million over the last 10 years, compared with the increase of 109 million in the preceding decade. The 1970s' growth rate was 24.75 percent, a hair less than the previous decade's growth of 24.80 percent.

"The provisional census results indicate very clearly that there has been almost no deceleration in the growth of population," says Indian Census Commissioner P. Padmanabha.

"We are disturbed that our recent census shows an alarming increase," Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told a meeting of the World Health Organization in Geneva last week. "It is small satisfaction to know that some of this is due to people living longer and not to a higher birthrate."

Indeed, India's birthrate has been declining --sand in 1971.The government had been claiming 33 per thousand for the last several years and has long had a target growth rate of 25 per thousand.

The death rate has fallen to 14.8 per thousand from 18 a decade ago, according to the census, and the average Indian can now expect to live to age 54 rather than age 46, which was the life expectancy only 10 years ago. But with only one-fifth of India's reproductive-age couples practicing birth control, births are far outstripping deaths.

India became the first nation in the world to adopt an official family planning program back in 1951, and the next two decades showed small but steady progress. But public revulsion at the forced sterilizations of Mrs. Gandhi's authoritarian "emergency rule" of 1975 to 1977 not only cost her job after the 1977 election, but dealt the family-planning program a ner-fatal blow.

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Sterilizations, which peaked at 8.1 million during the emergency year of 1976 -77, plunged to 900,000 the following year. Only slowly have they worked their way back toward the 2 million mark -- due largely to impoverished mothers seeking out birth-control services rather than to outreach efforts by the government's rechristened "family welfare" program, field workers report.

For Indian politicians, birth control became an untouchable subject. Mrs. Gandhi herself did not break the silence until last September, nine months after her return to power, when she appeared on government-controlled television to advocate voluntary family planning.

Since then, she has often spoken out in favor of family planning. But critics say her government has yet to match her rhetoric with action.

The shock of the 1981 census results has prompted an unusual bipartisan public appeal for "a humane, democratic, and voluntary yet vigorous program of family planning."

That was the call issued last week in the form, of large advertisements in major Indian newspapers by 83 prominent Indians, including not only the general secretary of Mrs. Gandhi's ruling Congress-I Party but also the heads of most opposition parties.

Industrialist J. R. D. Tata, chairman of the family-planning foundation that sponsored the appeal, warned that Indian's masses may no longer tolerate the grindingly poor lives they lead in a country whose gains are gobbled up by its extra mouths. "I think the people of this country will not accept in the next 20 years conditions as they are now."

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