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Publication: Times of India Mumbai; Date: Aug 14, 2009
Section: Front Page; Page: 1


In Satara, couples defer babies for cash carrots

Satara: In a dimly lit house in Bopegaon, 21-year-old Swati Jadhav is busy plaiting a six-year-old’s oily hair. She has just finished feeding her lunch, thrown her faded school uniform on a pile of clothes that need to be washed and even done the dishes with the girl on her hip.

The chemistry between the two has confused many into assuming that their bond is biological even though the six-year-old is only a daily visitor from the hut next door. As much as Swati would like love to coddle her own baby, she will have to wait. At least till Independence Day.

This is because Swati and her husband Mangesh are bound by an unusual promise they made to the district of Satara two years ago. Mangesh, an MSC graduate farmer, convinced his wife to register with the Honeymoon Package under which they vowed to defer having children for two years after marriage. On August 15, the Jadhavs will redeem their pledge and will be among those who will celebrate a different kind of self-determination. For putting parenthood on hold, they will get a cheque of Rs 5,000.

The Honeymoon Package is the brainchild of enthusiastic health officials of Satara who realised that dangling a carrot was better than wielding a stick or surgical knife for population control. 2,500 births delayed in Satara

Satara: Even as China has begun to relax its stringent ‘one child’ policy in the face of an ageing population (nearly 22% of Shanghai is over 60 years), Satara (seven hours from Mumbai) has taken baby steps towards the same goal but without demanding the same sacrifice. The sugar-and-windmill rich district, which produces a large number of soldiers, is better off than the impoverished drought-prone Vidarbha region.

In 2007, Satara’s officials introduced the voluntary scheme with a corpus of Rs 6 crore from the National Rural Health Mission to curb the rising birth rate in the area. If couples who had tied the knot after April 2007 registered themselves with the zilla parishad and deferred having children for two years, they were promised an incentive of Rs 5,000. Couples who opted to wait a third year would earn Rs 7,500. Although this may appear to be a modest amount, it is tempting in Satara considering the wealthiest residents earn around Rs 15,000 per month and those below the poverty line make roughly Rs 2,000 a month (the average daily wage is Rs 70).

On August 15, 485 couples will be facilitated with a tilak, shawl, dry coconut, certificate and a laminated cheque of Rs 5,000 at the local gram panchayat for doing their bit to slow the galloping Indian population. A total of 2,366 other couples in Satara district will be awarded during the year as and when they finish their two-year vow.

As word of the honeymoon offer spread across the 380 primary health care centres, officials reaped an early harvest of 250 registrations in the first month itself. Not only did every single public health care centre display a poster of the scheme in Marathi, impassioned doctors, nurses, wardboys and attendants went knocking on the doors of newlyweds to tell them about it.

Satara district in Western Maharashtra has a population of around 28 lakh with a girl:boy ratio of 995:1,000. District medical officer Dr V Phalake says that there are roughly 25,000 marriages every year and more than 80% result in a baby in the first year. This is mainly because of the widespread belief that a child born in the first year of marriage is healthy. Dr Phalake said that roughly 10% (2,366 couples) of the couples had participated in this program and 2,500 births had been delayed. “The birthrate of the district is steadily dropping from the previous 17 births per thousand. It will become 15 by 2010,’’ he says, the eyes behind his thick spectacles lighting up.

Vivek Baid, president of the Mission for Population Control, gives the experiment a thumbs up even though his NGO advocates permanent family planning measures like ligation and vasectomy. “It will work like a temporary family planning device like IUD, birth control pills and condoms. The financial benefits added to this package will motivate couples to delay childbirth,’’ he says.

Indeed, says Dr Phalake, that is the idea. “The idea is to delay births, not deprive parents of the joy of parenthood,’’ he says. “One should not forget that for every couple that is having the child after completion of the scheme, more are signing up.’’

The scheme has attracted couples from different sections of society and with different motives. For some it’s the money, for others it’s the ideal of small family and for still others where husbands or wives work in cities, it is simply a honeymoon of convenience. Mangesh registered so that Savita could continue her studies. School teacher Jawade Sandeep Sampat Rao signed up because his wife works in Lonavla. For daily wage earner Vinod Waghmare and his wife Dhanashree the motive was financial. “If it wasn’t for the scheme, we would have had children in the first year of marriage. But now I want to open a fixed deposit from this money for the future of my child,’’ he says.

While there is nothing seemingly Big Brotherish about the scheme—it’s a far cry from Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilisation drive—delaying having a child is still frowned on in rural quarters. Most of the 2,000 couples who have signed on have kept it a closely guarded secret from parents and in-laws because of fear of disapproval. Jawade Rao was one of those who told his mother and it didn’t go down well. Rao will not opt for the third-year Rs 7,500 payout because his mother didn’t talk to him and his wife for days after she found out that they had agreed to take money for not having a child. “We managed to talk to her but she can’t wait anymore,’’ he says.

Contraception workshops for the couples are regularly held and are followed by a compulsory pregnancy test. If positive, the couple is disqualified unless it chooses to opt for an abortion. But none of the 155 that tested positive opted for a termination because of the risks involved or pressure from inlaws. “It is difficult to argue with old people, they get upset very fast,’’ says a district health official.

The model has attracted interest from Assam and Jharkhand. Although India was the first country to have a nation family planning policy, its stand has been inconsistent. Recently, union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s statement that electricity and more television sets in villages would bring down the rate of reproduction evoked howls of protest, though many secretly agreed with the minister’s view. An on World Population Day on July 11, an overzealous I M Perumal, Karnataka’s health secretary, suggested drafting a law that would throw parents who had more than two children behind bars.

But the government has realised that force will not work. “The fight against population cannot be won in India either by forcible sterilisation or by blindly following the Chinese ‘one child’ model,’’ says Baid. “We will only convert citizens into lawbreakers if we follow those models. We should instead concentrate on creating awareness about the benefits of family planning. Satara has only made a beginning.’’

PARENTHOOD ON HOLD: Mangesh Jadhav and his wife Swati will receive Rs 5,000 on I-Day for not having children for at least two years after their marriage

MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE: Daily wage earner Vinod Waghmare and his wife went for the 3rd-Year option of the Honeymoon Package



India pays couples to put off having children

First cash payouts to families who delay having a child as India's population threatens to overtake China's

Thousands of couples in India who agreed to put off having babies for at least two years after their wedding will collect cash payments this month as health officials attempt to curb the country's rapidly growing population.

While neighbouring China shows the first signs of relaxing its strict policy of one child per couple in the face of an ageing population, India is searching for a way of restricting the size of families as the battle over scarce resources grows.

The country's population stands at 1.2 billion and is expected to reach 1.53 billion by 2050. But increasing pressure on resources means that there is barely enough water and food to go round.

A pilot project in the Satara district of Maharashtra has proved a success and other states, including Delhi and Assam, are now considering cash incentives.

Satara, funded by the National Rural Health Mission, is offering couples a reward of 5,000 rupees (£62) if they delay having a child for two years (70 rupees a day is a good wage in rural areas). If they wait another year, they receive a further 2,500 rupees.

The birthrate in the district rose from 16.5 births a thousand people in 2005 to 17 in 2007. The project initially attracted 977 couples, but that figure has risen to 2,366.
Satara has about 25,000 marriages a year and 80% result in the birth of a child within the first year. Only 155 couples on the programme left to have children.
The first cheques are to be issued on 15 August, with officials cautiously optimistic about a reversal in the birthrate, which is now down to 16.1 per thousand. Couples who take part are also eligible for
family  planning advice and free condoms.

In China, officials in Shanghai told couples last week that they could take advantage of exceptions to the one-child policy. The move was seen as a reaction to the city's ageing population and to years of population decline.

Indian health officials could be forgiven for feeling envious of Shanghai. More than 27 million children are born in India every year and half the population is below the age of 25. If the projections are correct, India will overtake China to become the world's most populous nation by 2050.

Vivek Baid, president of the Mission for Population Control, said India could no longer sustain large families, and that it should now aim for zero population growth. "We feel that two children is a necessity, but that a third is not required. It is better for families to control their family size," he said.

"People's economic situation is not improved by having more children. It places them under greater financial pressure and exposes them to malnutrition and disease and they do not have the money for education and clothes."

Indians have traditionally had large families, partly to counter the effects of high infant mortality. The preference for a male child has also led to large families as couples continue to try for a boy.

Falling infant mortality rates and better education meant many families were now prepared to subscribe to the two-child solution, Baid said. But India was never likely to adopt the Chinese model. "Family is a must among villagers. People would break the rule," he said.

India's health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, raised eyebrows last month when he suggested that the best way to curb population growth was to provide electricity to rural areas. Couples would spend more time watching television and less time making babies, he suggested.

Although his suggestion was regarded as frivolous in some quarters, Azad was making a serious point. With the country's population increasing by 18 million a year, he urged couples to wait until they were 30 before they married and started a family.

"It's a great concern. We need to work at supersonic speed to curb population growth," he said.
Other politicians have taken a harder line. The health secretary of Karnataka state – population, 64 million – used the recent World Population Day to call for couples who had more than two children to be jailed.

India's approach to population control has been anything but consistent. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister after independence, considered a large population to be an asset for a poor country. That did not stop India introducing its first family planning programme in 1952, promoting the use of contraceptives, although it was not a great success.

By the 1970s, under Indira Gandhi, India was pursuing an aggressive policy of forced sterilisation for men with two children or more. That was abandoned when Gandhi was forced out and a more moderate policy of "Hum do, hamare do" (one family, two children) was adopted.


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