Abhilash Gaur

When did India’s leaders wake up to the population problem? Not long after Independence, it seems. Sixty years ago, on December 20, 1956, then health minister Rajkumari Amrit Kaur said this in Parliament:

The increase of population in India constitutes a big national problem.

India’s population at the time was about 400 million, a third of the 1.2 billion recorded in 2011. But it was growing rapidly. From 361 million in 1951, it increased by 21% to 439 million in 1961. Even with that population and today’s GDP we could have been a reasonably well-off country.

Neither Urgency Nor Direction

Did Government of India not try hard enough to check population growth, or did it err in its choice of method? Both.

India’s ‘family planning’ or birth control effort started soon after Independence, but it lacked urgency and direction. “While government are not unaware of the problem, it is not possible for them to initiate any countrywide scheme of control on a matter like this without a very careful study of all factors involved,” Kaur told Parliament on July 29, 1952.

It was a reasonable approach, but was the government really making “a very careful study”? All it had done until then was set up three experimental centres for pilot studies on a birth control measure that both scientists and planners did not find feasible. Steamrolling all opposition, the government wasted several years on this measure.

The Rhythm Folly

The government’s pet birth control measure was called ‘rhythm method’. Instead of contraceptives it required knowledge of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Couples who took the course were advised to have intercourse on days when ovulation was least likely to occur.

Even in 1952, doctors spoke against the method. Kaur admitted: “Some of the women’s organisations have given their opinion. They are in favour of the use of mechanical contraceptives.”

The pill was not available then but condoms and foam tablets were. Did the government try to popularize these? Asked whether the government intended to subsidize contraceptives for the poor, on September 13, 1954, Kaur replied: “No, government is not supplying contraceptives to anybody.

What about grants to institutions and experts for research in family planning? The government did not distribute any funds to them. Its focus was on the complicated rhythm method that required careful training.

There were only three centres — two in New Delhi and one in Ramanagaram, Mysore — to train married couples in the method. The Ramanagaram centre covered 14 villages with a total population of 8,000. Training was reserved for couples among whom the wife was aged under 40 years. The area had 941 such couples, and 712 signed up.

Here’s the government’s own statement about the centre from August 24, 1953:

The programme started in September-October 1952, but “By the end of June 1953, only 385 menstruating women had been actively followed for various lengths of time. Tentative advice on the rhythm method is given after the examination of three menstrual cycles. Final rhythm is worked out on the basis of six menstrual cycles.

How was such a slow and complicated scheme expected to cover entire India? How was it expected to work in a largely illiterate country?

To know their safe dates couples had to use aids like beads and calendar cards, and many were not happy using them. Women also did not like the invasion of their privacy for drawing up rhythm charts.

Headlong Course

The government ignored all advice. These are some questions and answers from the September 13, 1954 debate in Parliament:

Mrs Violet Alva: “Dr V K R Rao, who was the delegate at the Population Control Conference, had stated that the rhythm method was not acceptable to the countryside and that some other method had to be thought of…”

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur: “Many people say many things. The government should consider them all and see what is feasible for the country.

Dr Mrs Seeta Parmanand: “What is the percentage of people, both doctors and social workers, who are in favour of the rhythm method?”

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur: “Government has no information as to what proportion favours which method.

Dr D H Variava: “May I know if there are any statistics about lowering of births after the adoption of this family planning for about 2 or 3 years?”

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur: “No statistics can be arrived at after one year.

Peas Not Pills

Instead of pushing straightforward birth control measures, the government also wasted time and money on ideas like developing oral contraceptives from field peas.

In 1955–56 one Mumbai-based scientist, Dr Khanolkar, carried out research on the subject, and later work was continued by two doctors at All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata. Tests on animals showed that pea extract caused abortions when taken in very high doses, but it did not find use as a human contraceptive.

Government also released a movie ‘Planned Parenthood’ in English and 6 other languages, and started a free magazine ‘Family Planning News’ with a circulation of 10,000 copies, but neither of these campaigns had an impact.

End Of Rhythm

For 6 years government stubbornly shrugged off criticism of the rhythm method and then, just as it had sprung the scheme on India, it gave it a quiet burial.

On September 16, 1958, Dr Mrs Seeta Parmanand asked this question in Parliament: “Whether the experiment on rhythmic method of family planning has been stopped?”

The new health minister, D P Karmakar, replied: “Experiments exclusively on rhythmic method have been stopped.