KERALA's highly successful family programme is coming under pressure from different quarters. On one side are religious leaders who want their communities to abandon restraint and produce more children. On the other side are reformers who favour use of compulsion to enforce the small family norm.
Kerala, divided into three administrative units, had a population of only 12.5 million at the time of Independence. The region had the highest population density and the highest rate of population growth in the country. In 2001, when the last census was taken, the State's population stood at 31.8 million.
It still had the highest population density but the rate of population growth was now the lowest in the country.
This miraculous fall in population growth was a measure of the success of the family planning programme. The Indian government, anxious to hold the galloping population growth, launched the programme immediately after the country gained freedom. The programme evoked far greater response in Kerala than elsewhere in the country.
Till 1971 the state had the highest population growth rate but thereafter it started declining. By 2001, the decennial growth rate fell to 9.4 percent as against the national average of 21.5 percent. There was a dramatic decline in both the birth rate and the death rate during this period.
The fall in the death rate is attributable to such factors as improvement in public health standards and medical facilities. The fall in the birth rate is attributable primarily to practice of family planning.
The spread of education and the revolution of rising expectations brought about a salubrious change in the attitude of the people.
Parents were eager to give children greater opportunities than they themselves had, and they realised that they could make better provisions for the family if its size was small.
The government did offer incentives under the family planning programme but there was no use of compulsion, as happened in some northern States during the Emergency.
Religious leaders, who are opposed to the use of contraception, did not put up any hurdles in the way of voluntary use of contraception.
Judging by the total fertility rate (TFR), worked out on the basis of number of children per women, the response of the different religious groups to the programme has been uneven.
In 1991, the Hindus had a TFR of 1.66, Christians 1.78 and Muslims 2.97.
Against this background, the census finding that the Hindu population had come down from 57.4 percent in 1991 to 56.2 percent in 2001 and the Christian population from 19.3 percent to 19.0 percent came as no surprise. The Muslim population moved up from 23.3 percent to 24.7 percent.
Some communal outfits sought to scare the Hindu majority by raising the spectre of being swamped by the minority communities. However, they could not make a big impact, primarily because the Hindu families which restricted the number of children had done so on their own.
Though the fall in the Christian population was small, it was enough to cause "grave concern" to the powerful Catholic Church. It exhorted the faithful to abjure contraception.
On a superficial view, the Muslim TFR and population growth appear to indicate a trend contrary to that in the rest of the state's population. However, the growth rate is falling among the Muslims too. As in the Christian community, there is a powerful section among Muslims too, who believe that contraception is against the principles of the religion. But experts are of the view that Muslims remain behind other communities in the matter of population control not because of religious reasons but because of educational backwardness.
The reported move by a law reforms commission, appointed by the state government, to impose penalties to enforce the small family norm has now set the stage for a needless confrontation on the issue of population control.
Recently the media reported that the commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer, has decided to propose the enactment of a law providing for a fine of Rs10,000 on parents who go in for a third child.
The Catholic Church dubbed it an attempt to import the Chinese population policy.
While the Church exercises tremendous influence on the Christians, it is doubtful if it can persuade those who are restricting the size of the family voluntarily, in order to give the children better lives, to go in for larger families. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 18, 2008.