(April 2000) Fifty-three years after independence, India is still looking for a viable policy to control population growth. Although it was the first country to adopt a family planning program, in 1952, the country is still growing by 15.5 million people each year and, if this trend continues, India may overtake China in 2045 by reaching a population of 1.5 billion.

As Indians contemplate becoming a population “billionaire” on May 11, the Minister of Health has just announced an ambitious new national population policy. The National Population Policy 2000 — released on Feb. 15 — aims to bring the total fertility rate (TFR) to replacement level by 2010 and to achieve a stable population by 2045, at a level consistent with sustainable economic growth, social development, and environmental protection.

Although these objectives are higher and the time frame to achieve them is shorter than with past programs, the 2000 policy may be more appealing to the public. It envisages achieving replacement-level TFR (about two children per woman) through “promotional and motivational measures” that emphasize quality of life, rather than through numerical targets for the use of specific contraceptive methods, which plagued previous programs. The proposed policy talks of better management of public health, education, and sanitation, and focuses on women’s employment.

Addressing unmet needs for basic reproductive and child health services, supplies, and infrastructure is foremost among the policy’s goals. Other goals are keeping girls in school longer, raising the age at which girls marry to 18 or 20, reducing infant and maternal mortality, and achieving universal immunization of children against vaccine-preventable diseases.

One well-publicized aspect of the National Population Policy 2000 concerns the allocation of seats in the Indian parliament. The policy recommends freezing the current number of seats for another 25 years to avoid penalizing states that have complied with previous population policies. The last allocation of seats to states and union territories was undertaken on the basis of the 1971 census and was due to be revised following the 2001 census. But if it were revised then, according to one estimate, the number of seats allocated to the state of Tamil Nadu, which has reduced fertility, would have gone down from 39 to 33. Meanwhile, the number of seats allocated to the state of Uttar Pradesh, which has failed to curb its growth rate, would have risen from 85 to 120.

Another vital recommendation of the policy is the formation of a National Commission on Population to guide and review implementation. The policy also recommends formation of similar commissions by each state and union territory. This decentralized approach would extend to the village level, where local self-help groups would be counted on to implement program measures.

Although it has not taken effect — both houses of the Indian parliament first must ratify the legislation — many wonder whether this policy can be implemented. An additional budget of 64 billion rupees ($1.4 billion) is needed to implement major portions of the policy.

In addition, some of the measures may be open to misuse. For example, an incentive of 500 rupees at the time of birth of a girl child and awards of 500 rupees to mothers who have their first child after they turn 19 appear to be unworkable given that registration of births and deaths in the country suffers from incompleteness. And offers of health insurance for couples below the poverty line who undergo sterilization could cast doubt on the government’s explanation that stabilizing population is needed for sustainable development “with more equitable distribution.”

The success of the population policy, if it is implemented, will depend on a judicious mixing of the roles of males and females. It is well known that women in India generally do not decide their reproductive behavior. Although most contraceptive methods are for women, many women have no say in limiting their family size or in adopting a particular preventive method. The proposed policy would focus information and education campaigns on men to promote small families and to raise awareness of the benefits of birth spacing, better health and nutrition, and better education.

O.P. Sharma retired as deputy director of census operations in India. He is PRB’s India consultant on the National Family Health Survey–2.