The idea that government must be involved in family planning presupposes the inherent utility in having lesser population, which would presumptively put our resources to lesser strain. It is argued that since our resources are limited, the people would receive a better share of them, if lesser number were to compete for them.
Family planning has no cultural ethos in India as newly wedded couples are typically blessed to have as many children as possible by elders. Somehow, modern thinking (western to be accurate) has led us to this ‘realisation’ that more means trouble. This informs our basic understanding of the concept of family planning and remains so entrenched and few if ever have tried to question it.
The utopian scenario that family planning aims for is a working couple with abundant resources having to spend them all on their one child as against a relatively poorer family struggling to meet ends with many children. This contrast in prospects between those who followed family planning and those who didn’t is among the oft-repeated advertising point of family planning initiatives. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Since much of our received wisdom comes from Western notions, I think that would be apt starting point of our examination.
Marriage rates in West
Historically, the marriages rates of Europe were very low. Sex was taboo and considered sinful. With private ownership of land a rarity, the agro-based society had too many people ineligible for marriage as they couldn’t take the role of husband-provider. In feudalistic society, the wealth remained concentrated with few people while most had no access to it at all. Thus, prostitution was (and continues to be) rampant in West.
Contrast this with historical India which always had near universal marriage rates. The private ownership of land was perhaps a uniquely Indian phenomenon in the world until 17th century. A married couple in older days were gifted gold that ensured that they at least had a solid footing for their initial turbulent times. This is especially telling, because India never had the matching reserves of gold despite being one of its greatest consumers for a long time. With resources being spread across many people, many men were capable of being a husband-provider and thus involuntary celibacy was rare. Ancient India also never considered sex to be sinful, it accepted it as a source of motivation in life, and chose to mould it for society’s benefit.
In comparison, the West barely had good marriage rates for two centuries, starting from industry revolution which helped bring wealth to many more people than the previous feudal system. But it has since relapsed to falling rates with the divorce epidemic widespread among all developed countries. In India, the divorce rates are still marginal although new laws and changing mindset has increased them of late.
Should India therefore try to learn family planning lessons from those who have persistently failed to create a system that sustains family?
Was Europe practicing Family Planning?
While Indians are led to be believe that as a nation we are exploding our race without checks, is this true from historical perspective?
Indian subcontinent has always been the mostly densely populated region through much of the last 5000 years, with China in tandem. The correlation between the advanced civilisation and population has always been positive. So if India is the second most populated region today, it is not a recent development; it has always been so.
But population explosion is a term that best suits Anglo-Saxons. Located solely in Western Europe barely 500 years ago, they now form the de-facto population of North American continent, Australia and New Zealand. This was achieved by not merely migrating to these regions but ensuring that the aboriginals were massacred, to make way for their ‘advanced’ civilisation. Their astronomical increase in population has no parallel in history.
The ascendency of Europe began with the colonisation of East and Americas. The blood-soaked wealth earned from the slavery and exploitation of colonies, later turned snow-white as their descendants invested them in industrialisation and helped spark Industrial Revolution.
Does a society whose advancement came from exploiting others have a moral uprightness that India should revere?
Social engineering as a tool for national progress
The original proponents of liberalism, now known as classical liberalism, were very clear on the point that government had no business in interfering with private lives of citizens. But thereafter, proponents of social liberalism advocated the use of government machinery for promoting social justice. From uncompromising opposition to any sort of government interference, many later relegated to allowing it for welfare purposes. The rise of socialism saw the role of government expanding to an extent that social liberals felt that government has an obligation in social engineering to create their utopia of equal society.
Social engineering, at its crux, assumes that an omniscient Government knows better than the society. It presumes that people who are capable to elect their government are somehow inept in leading their lives by their own wisdom. Since human behaviour is rooted in society, they felt changing the former is possible only through changing the latter.
True, some social behaviour is repugnant and deserves a death. But the change cannot be imposed from without by turning a blind eye towards innately human impulses. Social engineering doesn’t create an atmosphere where the barrier between two seas is destroyed so that the water levels are adjusted. It is a massive pumping machine which requires constant efforts to upkeep and any laxity in its energy will result in reality flooding back.
Precisely this wilful blindness from reality and human nature resulted in the collapse of USSR in 1991. The breakdown of USSR cannot be attributed to human selfishness that upturned the noble goal, but rather that it failed to realise that humans are rational beings and any reform that many people perceive as against their interests is bound to fail.
Ancient India however had a decentralised system of governance. The king seldom interfered in the local affairs of people which were always resolved among themselves. No codified set of universal laws were effective across India and each region had its own traditions and laws to achieve the purpose of maintaining tranquillity in society. Much unlike today, marriage was a private affair between two people and government/king had no authority to legalise it the way it does today. The consenting couple lived together encouraged by their society and marital problems were resolved through mediation from village elders. This fast, localised delivery of justice has since been replaced by a centralised legal system that moves at snail-pace and consumes the young years of couple should they ever attempt to resolve marital problems through court.
Role-models present grim picture
How have the advanced nations practicing family planning fared?
Japan, among the most advanced nations in the world has a peculiar problem. No, it’s not due to blunting of its technological edge due to competition from China, US or Europe. Strangely, it’s because its elderly populace who ideally should be enjoying their retirement, are forced to continue working. Why? The replacement population hasn’t arrived. Small families, late marriages and intensely single-minded focus on career by both genders have brought an acute labour crisis. Russian government is providing incentives for those opting for second child to combat its high male mortality rates.
USA is meeting its labour requirement presently through immigrants from Asia and Mexico. Western Europe deals with the same problem through immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa. But this is not going to end well. With xenophobic sentiments of local populace increasingly being articulated by politicians, there will at some point be a struggle for power between these two groups. France already has issues from the massive surge of Algerian immigrants who appear to be causing law and order problems.
Many countries in Europe have woken up to the threat of demographic siege by immigrants who are touted to outnumber the natives in next few decades. Cultural clashes within the society may soon become a norm and may render us all susceptible to baser instincts. The gates of civilisation so zealously guarded may soon corrode due to society’s overindulgence paving way for the barbarous impulses lurking outside for the opportune time.
What about China, the one nation which successfully crammed the one-child policy down their people’s throat? The looming threat of deficient replacement population forced it recently to ease its policy and is since making efforts to motivate people to have more babies.
If only family planning were not so stringently implemented in these countries, they would have never faced any of these problems.
Feminism and marriage
In the West, feminism has further compounded this problem. Feminists encourage women to delay marriage for as long as possible and instead concentrate on career for much of their younger (read fertile) years. Further, since they see marriage as an institution that chains women to domestic work and renders them exploitable by husbands, they conceptualised what is popularly known as “no fault” divorce in 1960s. They removed the necessity of proving the spouse’s fault for divorce, and once a spouse wants a divorce the other cannot contest it. The aim was to ostensibly improve the institution of marriage and providing an escape-route for those who felt trapped in it.
Though worded gender-neutrally, many claim that the law essentially boiled down later to the wife being able to walk away from the marriage with children at any time she wished to, without the husband necessarily being at fault, while she’s ensured of child custody and his provisioning nonetheless. With marriage becoming such a raw deal for men in West, it’s hardly surprising that many men increasingly choose to opt out of marriage altogether. All these are the unintended consequences of trying to improve the institution of marriage by ironically debasing it. Lowered marriage rates will over a period of time result in lower number of children too.
Without these future workers, the credit due on account of our extravagant thinking cannot be recovered. The pension system to care for the retired may become untenable. The family planning policy, while it appears beneficial to the private couple, is thus a disaster from public perspective.
The Indian Way
Our Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi has been emphasising our demographic advantage in various international platforms. What many forget in this euphoria is that India could not have witnessed this had it taken the family planning as seriously as western nations and China did.
India averted the fate of these nations because it did not heed to their advice and went about its own way. Although it is true that many poor people have too many children they cannot support, most of them have a good estimate of their own resources and know how many children they would be able to provide for.
People act rationally after surveying their societal environment and keeping their limitations in mind. The government should respect people’s capability of choosing their own actions. The Indian society, by keeping the possibility of sex outside marriage very low, helps more number of men to work better, improve their finances and become eligible for marriage.
Therefore, it is my humble opinion that there is no need of any innovative ideas for family planning as the available data on the subject and experiences of nations which have already implemented the same effectively show us no positive outcomes.
There need not be any overt attempt to influence public opinion and people should be allowed to make their decisions. Many attempts at government interference to influence private behaviour have ended in unpleasant consequences due to lopsided incentives that such interference helps create. The “invisible hand” of society is as self-correcting in the long term as its economic counterpart postulated by Adam Smith, the renowned economist.