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  Population control for a democratised India

Hridayesh Kant Gupta’s solution to stem India’s population tidal-wave, is based on a clear understanding of how new ideas take root in India. If you give them long, persuasive lectures they will sit through politely but ignore you; if you enact punitive laws, they will find ways to break them;if you use coercion they will defy you; but if you combine true value with personal freedom, they will embrace the idea and make it work.

Since 1947, the exuberance of becoming a free nation, improving healthcare, freedom from famines and an extremely sensitive state, have combined to quadruple our population. And for once, let us admit it is a purely people created problem. The government is blameless. You may at the most, accuse it of being clue-less for an answer; it is working a muscular democracy, after all. India has tried various methods but has not been able to wrestle the monster down. Today there’s a huge state machinery, that delivers information, condoms, pills, surgical services, entertainment, incentives and other many other feeble gestures. Population has remained a self-determining statistic and bears no relationship to the huge budget and number of workers deployed by the state.

Hridayesh Gupta, an IT consultant in Boston, USA, has begun to demonstrate an effective solution in a pilot project in Madhya Pradesh. As an IT professional he knows how to create systems and make them acceptable to users. He so fervently believes in his idea that he has put $40,000 of his own money to fund Project Small Family [PSF]. The kernel of his conviction is this: don’t waste money on processes—reward only results. PSF is open to young women in the age group between 18 and 35, who are willing to show up once in three months and be checked for being pregnancy-free. If found free, they are paid at the rate of Rs.250 per month. It sounds simplistic until you dig deep into its potential as a revolutionary idea. The idea has been at work since April 2003, in Seoni and Chhindwara districts of MP covering about 300 women.

Alas, it is easy to dismiss the idea with questions like, “Isn’t Rs.50,000 as a give-away to a single person over 15 years, an enormous subsidy?”, “How do we find money for the millions?”, “How do we run it country-wide?”, or “How can Rs. 250 per month motivate people?”. Gupta has convincing answers to all these, as we shall see. For now, just note that already, the pilot project is a wild success, with a queue of women waiting to join it. Pregnancy rates have dropped dramatically in a very short time.

The rules of the scheme are as follows: Women in that age group are finger-printed, videographed and given an ID card. They are enabled to open a bank account. PSF has several low-cost, video-conferencing kiosks in the villages. Once every three months, a woman must show up at a convenient kiosk, pay a fee of Rs.5 to the kiosk operator, be identified, examined and if not pregnant, have the reward money paid into her bank account. Each video interaction takes less than half a minute. PSF estimates they need just one paid employee per 2000 women enrolled,given the rate of monitoring at about 200 women per day. A kiosk-operator can net Rs.25,000 a month.

If you pause here and think through, the power of the idea will reveal itself. All costs of remaining pregnancy-free accrues to the woman. She is free to choose any method, from abstinence to abortion. There is no coercion. PSF has found that in rural India Rs.250 per month is very big money. Add the fact that it goes directly to women, and you see the effect it has on gender equity. Women have gained a new esteem as money-earners and their views are heard. Husbands often escort them to kiosks. Women outcast as infertile, have suddenly become valuable. Gupta doesn’t mind paying them or paying women in an odd quarter when they may in fact be pregnant but escape detection. In the end, a pregnancy is detected whereas thousands of fake contraceptive surgeries paid for by the government are not.

Since the money is paid directly into an account, there are no exploiting middle-men or husbands who flick it for their drink. Most importantly, money in the hands of women helps improve nutrition, education and welfare of the family. PSF does not aim at zero-birthrate. Its goal is delaying pregnancies and limiting them to two in a life time. With that lack of radicalism and an attractive monetary incentive, it is no surprise that the pilot project has been a success. PSF has developed many markers to quantify the benefits of the programme.

Gupta says, all efforts by governments have failed so far, because they have refused to share with women, “any money [the nation] saved by their not producing children or delaying their births.” He says the central budgetary expenditure per person per year is about Rs.5000. With each woman producing an average of 3 children [ie Total Fertility Rate or TFR of 3], even robust growth in the economy will keep that allowance per person static. He suggests that if we simply gave away Rs. 5000 per year to women above 21 without a baby, we would drop the TFR and have resulting surpluses. In fact, he has calculated that we can even give away Rs.5000 per year to women above 25, with one child and still make it a profitable investment for the nation. PSF has the system to make that distribution, leak-proof. All that money would be going directly into family-level development of human resource, instead of government run family-planning programmes. In just 3 quarters, TFR fell from 3.45 to 1.3 in the PSF pilot area, though admittedly it’s a small sample size.

Obviously, the idea will not fly without political vision and leadership. Gupta has prepared a detailed proposal for the government to study. He has written to leaders in the establishment and regrets he has not heard in response. An unsurprising exception is President A P J Abdul Kalam who listened to a 40 minute presentation by Gupta and asked probing questions. Gupta is convinced he has the President’s mind-share.

How can you, as a reader of GoodNewsIndia support this promising idea? There are three things everyone can do. One, you can contribute to PSF in multiples of Rs. 5000 and encourage it to keep the idea running till it attracts wider attention. Two, you can volunteer your time or even better, form a group and implement the idea in another place with assistance from PSF. Three, you can evangelise the idea by sending this story to your friends, writing in newsgroups, to politicians and corporate bosses. Nothing, however good, can take-off without our participation.


Project Small Family

Contact Mr Gupta at