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One family decides four is enough

HER name is Cholika. When I first met her, she would not talk. She stood huddled among a group of women, clutching the end of her green and lilac sari between her teeth. She held her youngest child, a daughter of four months. Her eyes were frightened.

The older women of the village prodded her, and she finally said, looking wearily at the scores of barefooted little children around me, ''We have too many to feed.''

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That was one imperative which finally prompted Cholika to muster up her courage, hire a bicycle rickshaw, and go to the city of Bandore to be sterilized.

Here in Potughar village, with its population of 500, nine women have been sterilized during the past year. Others have begun using the IUD or taking the pill.

Had men also agreed to be sterilized?

''No, no,'' said a wizened village elder. ''It would make us sick and we'd be too weak to work the fields.''

No one can visit Potughar or any of the other 68,000 villages of Bangladesh without being overwhelmed by the difficulties that this still young nation must face.

It is one of the world's five poorest countries, and the most overpopulated - 100 million people, rushing toward 160 million by the beginning of the 21st century.

According to demographers, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous nation on earth, yet it is only the size of Wisconsin, occupying three one-hundredths of 1 percent of the world's land. Its population density is thus roughly the same as if every person on earth was crowded into the continental United States.

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Cholika, like many women in this lush land, would have been sterilized 18 months ago, when she was first approached by a village health-care worker. Her husband Mazoud said she should wait. As a farm hand, working the paddy fields, he earns only 15 takas (60 cents) a day. A large family thus made economic sense: more hands for working and more possibilities for supporting Mazoud and Cholika in their old age.

But once their fourth child arrived - the average Bangladeshi family is six - Cholika and her husband decided that no more people could survive in their mud-floored, one-room thatched hut.

The government would pay them 175 takas ($7.12) if Cholika was sterilized. And, the operation was so swift and simple, that by the time cooking the evening meal should begin, Cholika would be back home. She had cried as she climbed aboard the rickshaw. Half the village was there to see her off.

When she arrived at the center in Bandore, Cholika was given an examination, a bath, and a new sari. The day I saw her she was not wearing the sari. It's the best one she has, she says; she keeps it for special occasions.

It is too early to tell whether the military government's war on the population explosion has met with any success. They have targeted cutting the annual growth rate of 2.6 to 2.7 percent to 1.5 percent by 1987.

That means that 720,000 Bangladeshis must either begin using birth control or be sterilized each year. It is a formidable undertaking. Only 15 percent of the population now falls into the two categories. And 50 percent of Bangladeshis are under the age of 15.

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