A holistic approach

Published: Monday 31 October 2005

-- We The Billion, A Social Psychological Perspective on India's Population by Ragini Sen Sage Publications 2003

India's population exceeds a billion. An annual addition of over 15 million people is not sustainable. This is well known. Unfortunately, there is very little political will to improve matters. The National Population Policy (npp) 2000 did mark a departure from earlier population control programmes. Gender and reproductive health issues were integrated into the programme, and npp also recognised the need for participatory and need-based planning at local levels.

But people targeted by the npp remained untouched by it. Even worse, the people whose job it should be to develop programmes to implement npp effectively remained woefully impervious to the policy. In an appraisal of the npp, the World Health Organization noted, "Success will be achieved if the action plan contained in the npp 2000 is pursued as a national movement". In We the billion, A social psychological perspective on India's population , anthropologist Ragini Sen advocates a similar approach.

But the author goes beyond trite platitudes and advocates a holistic approach to control population. Sen argues that social, cultural and psychological analyses of the targeted population should influence the making of any population policy. The general public is, for a change, viewed as an active participant rather than a passive recipient, and emerging representations are flexible and open to change. Sen's approach is so far relatively unknown in South Asia.

Social representation Sen's main premise is that fertility is a supra-individual issue and should not be treated on an isolationist basis. Her approach lays store on government policies; it also emphasies the importance of effective communication strategies. Sen argues that several issues -- the unbalanced sex ratio, woeful female literacy rate and the common fallacy that higher levels of fecundity can be attributed to minority groups (Muslims and Christians) -- have to be addressed simultaneously. But the author is careful to warn against a "no-holds-barred approach, such as that adopted during the emergency in India, or that adopted in China". Instead, she argues that the population policy should be born out of negotiations between all players. The importance of women is reiterated throughout the breadth of her arguments.

Sen also examines the media's role, and its possible effectiveness in helping to tackle the problem. Use of local symbols and languages is held up as an effective communication strategy. Finally, Sen argues that npp should be less centralised, and instead states should advertise district level success stories, and use them as models for replication.

Of particular interest is Sen's impressive analysis of the deep-seated problem of female illiteracy and the low standing of women in society. Because of high costs for dowry, and a number of other traditional payments, each daughter signifies a reduction in family resources and the birth of a daughter is equated with financial ruin. Sen argues that dowry is at the root of India's low sex ratio. Women's education, and an increase in literacy, can reduce birth rates significantly, she says.

We the Billion, with its ample empirical data, much of Sen's own findings, and extremely valuable appendices stands well as a tool to help look at overpopulation. It's certain that when dealing with overpopulation, both governments and societies must play their roles. The government should focus on economic development and achieving higher literacy levels throughout India, especially among women. At the same time, society must remove the many religious and cultural factors that are adding to the population problem. This -- and the problem is unquestionably bigger than just tackling overpopulation -- is where the complexity lies. Will the involvment of communities in framing population policies help? The approach seems worth trying, no doubt.

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