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India’s Population-Control Program May Be on Chopping Block

September 23, 1995

KANPUR, India (AP) _ Huddled with 14 women under the shady canopy of a neem tree, Shenaz Parveen conspires: ``Don’t tell your husbands about the pill.″

Brushing off flies swarming in from a swampy yard where buffaloes are tethered, Ms. Parveen tells the women of Maikapur village that they can begin to control their lives _ a seditious idea in male-dominated India.

Thousands of young women like her have fanned out across Uttar Pradesh state as part of a U.S.-financed project to control population growth. They knock on doors in the afternoons, when the men are away, and quietly give young housewives birth-control pills, condoms and counseling.

But the fledgling effort to get the message across in Uttar Pradesh _ India’s most populous state, where a child is born every 6.5 seconds _ may be stopped short.

The United States had been expected to provide $325 million over 10 years for family planning. But that money and millions more dollars earmarked for India’s poor could fall victim to cuts in U.S. foreign aid.

The American government now provides about $150 million annually in India to promote contraception and to guarantee food and housing for the poor.

Created in 1993 by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Uttar Pradesh population program took a year to put its first worker in the field.

In three years, it has spent barely $7.5 million of the $65 million available, because the U.S. money is routed through India’s notoriously slow bureaucracy.

The backed up funds, however, may help ease the impact of inevitable U.S. aid cuts.

``We have enough money in the pipeline to survive for three years in Uttar Pradesh,″ says Jinny Sewell, head of AID’s family planning division in New Delhi.

After that, it may be impossible for cash-strapped Uttar Pradesh to continue. And India’s central government is unlikely to fill the gap. Like the United States, India is trying to get its budget deficit down.

If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would have the world’s seventh largest population: 139 million people. It is growing by 3.3 million a year. The state is adding 1,000 schools annually, but it needs 22,000.

Seven out of 10 women are illiterate. Most are married by 16 and have three children by the time they are 20.

The population program’s goal is to reduce the average number of children for each couple in Uttar Pradesh from five to three within 10 years.

Population workers say U.S. cuts loom just as results are beginning to show. Attitudes are changing inside clay-walled village huts, where women’s lives have been shaped by centuries of fatalism.

``Initially I had doors slammed on my face,″ says Anita Yadav, who has persuaded 250 of the 600 women in the slum quarter of Ambedkarnagar to use condoms or birth-control pills.

Ms. Yadav walks into the hut of Leelawati, 26, mother of five, and talks to her about her recent sterilization.

``My husband doesn’t know yet. If he asks, I will say his mother asked me to get the operation,″ she says.

Age-old beliefs and traditions fetter India’s efforts to check its population, which is likely to overtake China in the next 30 years. It now stands at 900 million.

``Children are given by God. To tamper with your body to stop children is going against God,″ says village elder Kabila Begum, expressing a view held by many rural women.

But the first obstacle to population control comes from the men. Most feel the use of condoms or vasectomy would sap their vitality.

``I have never used a condom. I don’t think it is correct to override nature,″ says Shyam Behari, 26, a dairy farmer waiting to sell milk to the cooperative in the village of Narsinghauli.

Despite his assertion, Behari’s wife, Manju Devi, has been collecting condoms from the local volunteer for months and the couple is listed as a condom user.

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