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Ideas For India

Aug 09, 2004
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.

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