Early education is the key to reducing birth rate

Every rupee invested on four years of primary education for girls would yield returns worth Rs 10 of investment on advertising contraceptive technology.

By Ash Mitra
Published: Wednesday 30 September 1992

Women and children line up out (Credit: Pradip Saha)I WAS lucky that my childhood memories and later my life as a civil servant gave me insights into demographic behaviour. My boyhood recollection of an evening of listening to my father and his friends soon after the 1931 census results were published, left an abiding impression of the reasons for the continuous decline in the male females proportion in our population. Alarmingly, this decline seems to have received a fresh lease of life in the last census decade. Home truths like the inordinate preference for male children along with deliberate or unintentional neglect of unwanted female infants and children, the phenomenally high rate of maternal mortality the gross discrimination against females in nutrition distribution within the family, have all left an indelible impression on my mind. My experience throughout India taught me to liken the human body to a holed bucket from which the amount of nutrition that leaks out during just one attack of intestinal infection could exceed all the nourishment arduously poured into it over a six months stretch.

The Bengal famine of 1943 added other dimensions to the problem of malnutrition. The 1951 West Bengal census gave me the opportunity to measure how disastrously the livelihood and self-supporting status of women in traditional occupations had deteriorated between 1901 and 1951.

I brought out the implications of this phenomenon for India as a whole as well as that of our steadily deteriorating sex ratio in my book, India's Population: Aspects of Quality and Control. A sample survey of human fertility, conducted along with the 1951 West Bengal census, convinced me that just four years of institutional primary education would be effective in lowering fertility and strengthening a woman's ability to take her own decisions.

These findings were confirmed by a study on couple fertility in greater Calcutta by Ajit Dasgupta and Pramod Pati and by C Chandrasekhara's study in Mysore. They gave me valuable insights into the synergetic, interacting and multiplier effect on the fertility behaviour of women of improvements in elementary social, cultural and economic attributes of the household.

At the keynote address of the demographic session of the Indian Science Congress in 1967, I ventured to postulate that every rupee invested on four years of primary education to girls would yield returns worth Rs 10 of investment on the advertisement of contraceptive technologies.

The unprecedented decadal growth in 1961, which continued unabated in 1971, confirmed that the high trend was in full cry. Looking back on the Third Plan and Fourth Plan presentations, around 1962-63 and 1968-69, it is difficult to avoid the impression that while in the early 1960s a certain philosophical approach was strident, quite another was struggling for recognition later in the decade. These approaches assumed that reduction of birth rate, irrespective of the social, cultural and economic milieu, was a straight function of the state-of-the-art contraception technology.

People seemed in a tearing hurry to launch what was called the cafeteria approach, sponsored by media celebrities. This was based on a series of knowledge, aptitude and practice (KAP) surveys, which seemed to be tailored to elicit the answers of the promoter's choice. All that was needed was to offer products attractively packaged and aggressively advertised. These were largely single-approach campaigns. Even to this day attempts are seldom made to relate how the nationally broadcast slogan of do bachche bas (stop with two children) holds the key to conservation and improvement of each element of ourquality of life.

Nonetheless, these media campaigns occasionally become bizarre as, for instance, a richly caparisoned elephant with clanging bells and wending its way majestically through villages, displaying the inverted red triangle, the symbol of birth control in the public mind.

On the other hand, what can you say of today? Isn't it a pity that in the last 40 years, despite all the talent and developments at Akashvani and Doordarshan, no satisfactory, graduated, mass instruction modules have been evolved for various audiences on the role of population in the context of social and economic growth and the preservation of the environment? Even our government institutions of mass communication and social welfare do not seem to be interested at all.

Asok Mitra is a demographer and former secretary to the President of India. This is an excerpt from a lecture made to the Family Planning Foundation.

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