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Indian Population Reaches 1 Billion

May 10, 2000

BOMBAY, India (AP) _ Meena Pawar spends all day in crowded shanties cajoling women not to have more children. But India marks a milestone Thursday that shows just how strong the tide is against her: The population officially reaches 1 billion people.

Pawar, a municipal nurse, works in the slums of Bombay, on the front line of efforts to reduce population growth, but she faces deeply entrenched attitudes against birth control. If India doesn’t curtail population growth, experts say that in 50 years it will overtake China and end up with 1.5 billion people.

Deciding when India reaches the 1 billion mark is tricky in a nation where 42,000 children are born every day and medical records are scanty. The United Nations Development Program said India joined China in the exclusive club on Aug. 15 last year. The government’s Census Board projected it for May 1 of this year.

In a program to promote awareness of population growth, the government decided to mark the milestone May 11, calling it ``a moment of celebration, a moment to ponder.″

At New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, doctors are zealously watching over several dozen pregnant mothers. The first girl delivered after noon Thursday will be designated the one billionth baby.

The spiraling population has swamped every measure of progress India has made since independence 53 years ago. Food production has tripled, yet many people go hungry; literacy has increased, but so has the sheer number of illiterate people.

Nowhere is this problem more clear than in Bombay, a city where more than half of the 15 million people sleep on sidewalks or live in mud-and-tin huts. For many of its poor people, every child is a potential wage earner: a servant in a house, an understudy in a motor garage, someone to do odd jobs.

Health workers try to explain the harsh realities.

``We tell them how expenses will increase and detail health complications due to so many deliveries,″ said nurse Vimal Bhagwat. Half a million women die each year in South Asia from complications arising from childbirth.

Pawar said men must be better educated on family planning.

``We must motivate the family members, especially men. Women don’t have the guts on their own to say that they want to be sterilized,″ Pawar said.

But family planning has never recovered from the stain it received from a 1975 mass sterilization campaign launched by the government. Police, teachers and government officials were ordered to round up people for vasectomy and tubectomy operations. Many illiterate people were sterilized without their knowledge.

Nurses such as Pawar now approach the topic of birth control cautiously, talking first about general health and hygiene. Critics want a more assertive approach, promoting the benefits of smaller families and offering people incentives, such as cash, for limiting births.

Others say birth control projects will succeed if more women get jobs, low-cost houses and better education.

``If I had been working before my third pregnancy, I wouldn’t have had a third child. I would have realized two children are enough,″ Pawar said.

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