Beyond The Billion

If post-Independence leaders of India had ensured full literacy, a solution would have been in sight for a lot of problems. Population, for one. But, today, in order to achieve the objectives of balanced social development and population stabilisation, the leaders face a major challenge -- female literacy. Cultural and economic factors are known to play a key role in keeping girls away from school. But it is little known that ecological degradation is a major constraint, too. It may even be possible that it leads to increased population. Unfortunately, there aren't many studies which try to correlate the total environment-related work burden with fertility, says Anil Agarwal

Published: Friday 30 June 2000

Beyond The Billion

-- THE mythical clock has struck. A billion and ticking at the rate of 29 per minute, 1790 per hour... The rise in human numbers is accompanied by a host of problems. Knowledge of the carrying capacity of India's lands is extremely limited. There is no worthwhile study covering even the area of a development block, let alone a state or the entire nation. A Food and Agricultural Organisation (fao) study, conducted way back in the early 1980s, shows that unlike many other countries India is in a position to feed at least two billion more people with known technology. In other words, properly managed, India's lands can bloom bringing unprecedented prosperity.

But this does not mean that population must expand to fill the ecological productivity possible, or family planning programmes are not important. What is important is to recognise the need to sustainably manage our natural resources -- in other words, the environment. And the lesser-known but possible link to population stabilisation.

Population problem is not only a social and economic problem. It is an ecological problem too. For women running the subsistence economy, it makes sense to have a gaggle of young, especially female, helpers. It ultimately means that the education of the girl child is the first to be sacrificed. Is it then possible that ecological degradation is the root to our population problem?

Getting rid of these constraints mean regenerating India's lands, making firewood and fodder easily available and thereby reducing the work burden of women. This ensures female literacy, which has important implications on the rising numbers.

The importance of female literacy
Demographers tell us that female education and empowerment has a significant impact on fertility behaviour. And poverty is not always correlated with literacy.

- Census data in India clearly show that the fertility rates drop with increasing levels of female education. The 1981 census revealed that women with no education had a fertility rate of 5.1, women with primary education 4.5, women with upper primary education 4.0, women with secondary education 3.1, and women with higher education 2.1.

- Simulation study using cross-national data shows that doubling female secondary enrolments would have reduced the fertility rate from 5.3 to 3.9 (a decline of 27 per cent), whereas doubling the family planning efforts would have reduced it only by 18 per cent. In other words, female education is the best contraceptive.

- Poverty often has little to do with literacy. In India, Kerala, for example, has a literacy rate of 90 per cent compared to 58 per cent in Punjab, which has more than double the per capita income of the former.

- Vietnam, which is poorer than India, has achieved a 94 per cent adult literacy rate whereas in India, it is only 54 per cent.

Is there a correlation between 'ecological poverty' and female illiteracy?
Education experts have often pointed out that schooling is the result of a range of social, cultural and economic factors. But there is little in the literature to link education with environmental factors.

A study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) in a Himalayan village revealed that 'ecological poverty' has serious implications for female literacy in particular. Ecological poverty is defined as the lack of natural resources, both in quantity and quality, that are needed to sustain a productive and sustainable biomass-based economy. An excellent indicator of' 'ecological poverty' is the amount of time a rural household spends on collecting basic survival needs like water, fuel and fodder from the local environment.

As in most cultures, these activities are carried out by women, it is they who have to bear the maximum impact of 'ecological poverty'. The cse study revealed that in a village of 213 people, the total work-hours spent in animal care, agriculture, fuel and fodder collection, animal grazing and other household and market-related activities during an entire year was 366,156, of which women contributed 58.75 per cent of the labour and children another 26.32 per cent. Men contributed a mere 14.92 per cent. Though a few men had migrated out of the village, a common phenomenon in the region, in the village studied, females were only 46 per cent of the total population. Children below the age of 15 constituted about half the population and men and women made up about one-quarter each of the population.

While male workers in the village contributed a little less than half of the total work-hours spent on agriculture, only women and child workers undertook the work of fuel and fodder collection, and child workers were exclusively assigned the work of animal grazing. The work burden varied from one season to another. The average working hours per day for women increased from 9.27 in August to over 14 in September and April. There were no weekends or holidays for women.

All this had a major impact on female literacy. Most children went to school late but by about age 10 almost all children in the village were in school. But for girls education was very brief. No girl in the age group 15-20 was in school whereas 78 per cent of the boys in this age group were still receiving education. No girl in the village had reached the high school level. In fact, less than 10 per cent of the girls went beyond the primary stage. In other words, even though the village had a school, parents allowed girls to go to school only for a brief period and by the time they had reached an age of 15 years, all of them were working to assist their mothers in fuel and fodder collection, agriculture and other household chores. Girls took on full responsibilities for grass and firewood collection, grazing cattle and assisting in farming tasks at a very early age. While boys never participated in grass and firewood collection, they also got involved in farming much later than girls.

The simple lesson of this study was that even if the state provides schooling facilities, where the work burden is excessively high on women, the girl child is unlikely to go to school, and even if she does, it will not be for long.

A 1997 World Bank study entitled Environmental Degradation and the Demand for Children: Searching for the Vicious Circle has used a large scale household data set from Pakistan to analyse what relationships exist between firewood availability and fertility behaviour. The study concludes that firewood availability does seem to be related to fertility. Even after controlling for other determinants of fertility in reduced form regressions, it was found that households living in areas in which distance from firewood source is greater have more children, while households living in areas in which firewood is more expensive have fewer children.

The author could not find a single study which tries to correlate the total environment-related work burden with fertility behaviour.

Where is environment-related female work burden very high?
There are hardly any studies available on women's work burden across different agro-ecosystems. But a fair assessment of the problem areas can be made from the numerous rural energy consumption studies that have been conducted over time in India. These studies show that in agriculturally developed plains, nearly a third each of the household cooking energy needs are met from crop residues and cowdung, and the remaining one-third is met by firewood. Agriculture plays an important role in meeting household energy needs in these areas. It not only provides crop residues directly for use as fuel but as crop residues are also used to feed animals, it also provides cowdung as a source of fuel. But in desert areas and in mountain areas, where agriculture is poor, firewood provides well over two-thirds of the household fuel. But as trees are few in desert areas and on degraded mountain sides, the work burden can be excessively high just to collect firewood. Studies have recorded as much as 8 hours per household per day in such areas.

According to The State of World Rural Poverty produced by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (ifad) in 1992, out of a population of some four billion people living in 114 developing countries, more than 2.5 billion live in rural areas, and of these approximately one billion live below the poverty line. More than half of this population lives in highly degraded lands. These people suffer from a lack of basic necessities like safe drinking water, adequate food and health care which means that almost a third of the people in the developing world have a life e expectancy of just 40 years. The ifad report says that less than half the rural population had access to safe drinking water and even less to irrigation water to ensure sustained agricultural production.

Kerala has often been highly praised by demographers for its low birth rate and high female literacy despite its low per capita incomes. But it may be useful to investigate whether the high availability of biomass and water in the tropical, humid environment of Kerala the state is blessed with two monsoons a year was an important factor in the success of the state's female literacy programme. Women in Kerala rarely spend more than an hour collecting basic needs like fuel, fodder and water and their work burden is far less than that of women in other parts of India. Various reasons have been cited for the spread of female literacy in Kerala, including a historical emphasis by the state on education and long periods of enlightened and socially-concerned left governments. But is it not possible that easy availability of biomass resulting in low work burden of women provided the appropriate precondition for enlightened literacy programmes to succeed? Will similar literacy programmes have the same chance of success in Rajasthan or other areas of environmental degradation where the work burden on women is extremely high? These questions have not been studied by demographers or environmentalists.

The theory is very simple. If environmental degradation leads to increased work burden, then will parents not see benefits in having more children? Among other things, if the environment is degraded:

- the probability of a child surviving to adulthood may be lowered and, therefore, parents may be induced to bear a larger number of children.

- animal husbandry will tend to supplant agriculture. Since herding livestock is less heavier work, children can play a more important role in meeting the household's labour demand.

- adults, especially women, may like to share their work burden in 'collecting' household needs from the immediate environment with their children so that they can take on more labour-intensive or cash-earning activities.

Environmental degradation will, thus, militate against programmes aimed at women's education and empowerment, a major requirement for inducing demographic change.

But all this presupposes that environment is an open access resource. What if rural communities are given rights over their immediate environment -- in other words, the environment becomes a closed community resource -- in order to bring about community-managed ecological regeneration? What will be the impact on demographic behaviour?

Does environmental regeneration promote demographic change?
During the last 25 years, land degradation in India has resulted in increased poverty and drought-prone conditions across large areas of the country. This human condition has, however, seen some outstanding community-based responses to reverse the land degradation and thus revive the local biomass-based economy. Two villages -- Sukhomajri, situated in the sub-Himalayan Sivalik hill range, and Ralegan Siddhi, situated in the drought-prone Deccan Plateau region of Maharashtra -- started their efforts in the 1970s. In both villages, development of transparent and participatory community-based decision-making institutions and establishment of community property rights over the local natural resource base was critical. These institutions decided natural resource management priorities, resolved conflicts within the communities, and determined burden- and benefit-sharing rules.

Technologically, the starting point was rainwater harvesting -- centuries-old tradition of Indian villages -- which slowly led to the regeneration of the entire 'village ecosystem' and the associated rural economy. Rainwater harvesting was either undertaken to store water in small earthern tanks for directly irrigating croplands or for recharging the groundwater aquifers for later use through irrigation pumps. Creation of these water harvesting systems made people realise the importance of protecting their watersheds which led to community-determined rules for controlled grazing and thus a steady regeneration of the vegetative cover in the surrounding hills. While increased water availability led to improved agricultural productivity, the protection of the watershed led to increased availability of grass and leaf fodder which in turn led to increased production from the local animal population. In both villages, as the local carrying capacity increased, there was not just an increased capacity to withstand droughts but also reverse rural-urban migration (see The State of India's Environment: The Citizen's Fifth Report, a cse publication).

The available literature on Ralegan Siddhi and Sukhomajri clearly show that ecological regeneration in degraded lands has a significant impact on the rural economy. Unfortunately, no baseline data exists on the economic or demographic status of these villages before the ecoregeneration activities began. Therefore, a survey was commissioned by cse in 1998 to capture the perceptions of the heads of households and aged women because ecoregeneration activities in both villages began nearly two decades ago. The purpose of the survey was to understand the economic and demographic impact of ecoregeneration activities in these two pioneering villages.

The survey reveals the following:

- Ecoregeneration has resulted in more irrigation water for land, assured availability of water for drinking purposes and also for livestock, and higher availability of grass for fodder for stall-fed animals. There has also been a significant improvement in the forest cover and firewood availability.

- The economic status of people in Ralegan Siddhi and Sukhomajri is significantly higher than the control villages.

- A larger proportion of respondents in the two villages reported fertility declines as compared to the control villages. It was found that household income and respondent's education has a significant and negative impact on fertility, measured in terms of occurrence of child birth over the last three years.

- Educational attainment levels in Ralegan Siddhi and Sukhomajri are not much different from the control villages. However, higher income households depict higher levels of education. Therefore, it can be said that ecoregeneration activities are leading to improvements in educational levels to the extent they bring about changes in economic conditions.

In sum, there is sufficient evidence to undertake further studies on the link between ecoregeneration-female literacy-fertility behaviour as well as field projects in which ecological regeneration efforts are combined with female literacy programmes, especially in the world's degraded lands.

The government released the National Population Policy 2000 in February this year. It aims to "achieve a stable population by 2045, at a level consistent with the requirements of sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental protection". However, unless the government makes female literacy the focus of their family planning programmes, it is hard to believe that the new policy will be any different from the ones drafted during the last 50 years and the rising numbers will continue to shadow the family planning initiatives (see p54: A billion strong or weak?).

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