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India Population and Poverty 16 Feb 1997


FEBRUARY 16-28, 1997


Fifty years after Independence, more people, more poverty


NEW DELHI—As India gears up to celebrate 50 years of independence, for millions of its 950 million citizens, steeped in poverty and hopelessness, there is not much cause for rejoicing.  Independent researchers estimate that 41 percent of the population in India live below the poverty line, about 350 million people—-which represents the entire population of India at the time of independence. Even the most optimistic predictions on India’s future take into account the enormous challenges it has to meet to educate, feed, provide health, infrastructure and jobs for millions who live at the very edge of existence.  Population growth is one of the factors that has kept India’s development down. India’s huge population is expected to level off at round 1.5 or 2 billion by the middle of the next century.

Yet, India was one of the first developing countries to have a family planning program. Wasim Zaman, UNFPA’s representative  for India and Bhutan, said, “India’s family planning program has gone through phases. There has been success when you consider that fertility rates have declined from over 6 children per woman in 1951 to an average of 3.38 in 1995.”

The contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) is low, just over 40 percent, and the problem according to Zaman is that India did not diversify in terms of methods available. “The current use of contraceptive pills and IUDs is less than 1.2 and 1.9 percent of CPR, respectively,” Zaman said. Female sterilization accounts for 80 percent of contraceptive practice.

“A hopeful factor is that a number of states in India including Goa and Kerala have low fertility rates and it is basically four to five large states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh which have high growth rates,” Zaman said.

Zaman feels that one of the most promising changes that have taken place in the family planning field in India is a major policy shift away from sterilization and set targets to an emphasis on a comprehensive reproductive health package with the maximum possible choice in terms of contraceptive methods. This will need financial resources, technical

support and building up management capacity, he said.

“UNFPA’s next program cycle started in 1997 and we have a budget of $100 million for five years. The government has agreed that 10 percent of this will be set aside for NGOs to implement programs.”

“Two limiting factors in India’s development in the next century, besides population, will be water and electricity,” said Dr. Sethuramiah Rao, Director, Technical and Evaluation Division of UNFPA. Rao comes from the city of Bangalore, which is known as the silicon city of India.

Current statistics show that 49 percent of Indian households don’t have electricity and 32 percent do not have pumps or piped water.

The next 50 years pose a daunting challenge for India, according to Rao, as there is no comprehensive long-term strategy to attend to these issues. “Urbanization is another critical issue. We have not developed a plan for more medium size cities, to take the burden off megacities,” Rao said. As a result, cities like Bangalore are reeling under pressures of industrialization and urban growth but do not have the water resources or electricity to handle it. “But policy makers and politicians don’t always take these things into consideration,” said Rao.

At present some 250 million people live in urban areas. The National Institute of Urban Affairs estimates that, if the present rate of growth continues, by the year 2021, 50 percent of India’s population will be urban dwellers—which could be more than 500 million people.