World population has reached 8 billion – India’s history reminds us why population control is still a bad idea

Family Planning imagery on an Indian postage stamp, 1967. Attribution: Post of India, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rebecca Williams
University of Exeter

World population has probably now reached 8 billion. For many, this will be a cause for alarm rather than celebration. However, Natalia Kanem, the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has rightly cautioned against ‘population alarmism’ and warned against population control measures, saying these have historically been ‘ineffective and even dangerous.’ Some commentators call for calm on the basis that past and present projections of runaway population growth leading directly to mass famine and other catastrophes have been overblown. A brief look back at the history of India’s experience of population control reminds us why population alarmism and population control can be so harmful.

Amid an environmental crisis and political uncertainty, many worry about the impact of more people on the planet. Some even advocate for measures to reduce population growth. For historians of population control, the current discourse surrounding population growth has echoes of the decades following the end of the Second World War, when concern about ‘overpopulation’ permeated debates about poverty, economic development, and the environment, leading to attempts to control population growth—largely by curtailing the fertility of people in the global south.[1]

The history of China’s population control attempts, particularly its ‘one-child’ policy, is comparatively well-known. But it was far from alone. From the 1950s many countries developed family planning programmes in a bid to lower birth rates, often with the support of international donors.

India, which the UN’s World Population Prospects 2022 report predicts will surpass China as the world’s most populous country in 2023, was the first country in the world to experiment with state-led population limitation, launching its national Family Planning Programme as part of its First Five Year Plan in 1952. India’s population control programme was at times draconian, as alarm about population growth fuelled increasingly coercive interventions culminating in the mass sterilization of upwards of 8 million citizens during the ‘Emergency’ period of 1975-77.[2]

While the focus of the current news cycle is on the environmental impacts of population growth, the main concern for India’s policymakers in the 1950s was the relationship between population growth, poverty, and economic development. Jawaharlal Nehru’s government and its successors worried that population growth would cancel out the gains of economic development, keeping living standards low and preventing the capital accumulation necessary for industrialisation and modernization.[3] International organisations supported the Indian Family Planning Programme with finance and expertise, fearing that India’s large and growing population posed a particular problem for economic development, global stability, and population ‘quality.’[4]

Meanwhile, a nascent environmental movement in the global north also issued stark warnings about the pressures of ‘overpopulation’ on global resources, and highlighted India as an example of the ‘population problem.’ Opening with scenes from ‘one stinking hot night in Delhi’, American biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb is a classic example, predicting that population pressure would lead to ‘famine and ecocatastrophe’ resulting in hundreds of millions of starvation deaths in the 1970s and 80s.[5] Ehrlich called for immediate and drastic population control measures, mooting the idea of governments adding sterilants to water supplies or staple foods to curtail fertility.

The idea of ‘overpopulation’ as a cause of global suffering was not without critics. Some population control critics argued that the ‘overpopulation’ narrative was overly pessimistic about the ability of mankind to provide for a growing global population; indeed, the mass starvation that Ehrlich predicted was largely averted due to the agricultural ‘Green Revolution’ which resulted in a rapid increase in food production in the postwar decades. Others argued that the focus on overpopulation as a cause of poverty was misplaced and glossed over the politics of resources—who owns, controls, and consumes them—and was tantamount to blaming the poor for their own poverty. In today’s environmental debate, critics also continue to point out that the very people who are the most likely to be targeted for population control—largely poor people in the global south—are those who consume the least, and who therefore contribute less to the climate crisis.[6]

Nevertheless, the sense that India represented the apex of a global ‘population emergency’ dominated decision-making around India’s Family Planning Programme in the decades following independence, sometimes with terrible consequences for those the Programme was meant to serve.[7] The Family Planning Programme began as a comparatively limited voluntary programme, rolled out by the governments of India’s federal states through family planning clinics. However, amid mounting fears about population growth, from the 1960s the Family Planning Programme became increasingly coercive. In the mid-1960s targets for family planning ‘performance’ were introduced, along with incentive payments for family planning ‘acceptors’ that amounted to coercion for many of India’s poorest.

The sense of urgency surrounding population control also encouraged an increasing focus on methods of family planning that were ‘fool proof’ and suited to mass distribution and implementation, rather than on the needs of the individual men and women who ‘accepted’ the methods.[8] Sterilizations, particularly vasectomy, and Intra-Uterine Contraceptive Devices became the mainstay of the programme because they were provider-controlled, highly effective at preventing conception, and could be rolled out through mass ‘camps’ at which hundreds of procedures could be completed in a day—sometimes without the attention to hygiene and medical assessment necessary to make these procedures safe. Incentive payments were also weighted to encourage ‘acceptance’ of these over less invasive methods, with the highest payments made to Indian citizens who underwent sterilization.

The Family Planning Programme reached its high point in terms of scale and coerciveness during the ‘Emergency’ of 1975-77, when Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party government suspended civil liberties in response to ‘internal disturbance.’ One of the defining features of this period was the enormous increase in the drive for sterilizations through the Family Planning Programme. In some states, police were involved in ‘motivating’ men to ‘accept’ vasectomy; government servants were given quotas of people to ‘motivate’ for sterilization and, in many cases, were themselves required to produce sterilization certificates in exchange for promotion, housing allocation, and holiday pay. After the Emergency ended and censorship was lifted, Indian newspapers were filled with reports of forced sterilizations and deaths because of medical complications following hastily implemented family planning drives.[9]

Indira Gandhi’s government maintained that the ‘excesses’ in the Family Planning Programme were the result of overzealous officials pushing to exceed their allotted sterilization targets. However, evidence collected by the Shah Commission of Inquiry, a ‘fact finding’ inquiry set up by the succeeding Janata Party government to investigate the ‘excesses’ of the Emergency, clearly show that the central government encouraged severe measures as part of a ‘crash programme’ to rapidly lower birth rates in response to concern about population growth. In a speech in January 1976, Indira Gandhi herself stated that ‘we must now act decisively and bring down the birth rate speedily… We should not hesitate to take steps which might be described as drastic. Some personal rights have to be kept in abeyance, for the human right of the nation, the right to live, the right to progress.’[10]

While the population control measures pursued during the Emergency had dire personal consequences for many Indian citizens caught up in the drive for sterilizations, the events of 1975-77 also had complex and confounding consequences for Indira Gandhi’s government, and for the Family Planning Programme.

In the elections that followed the end of the Emergency in 1977, the Indian electorate voted out Indira Gandhi’s government in what was widely seen as a backlash against draconian methods of population control.

The Family Planning Programme pivoted away from men, and towards women: rates of vasectomy sharply declined, and never recovered. Rates of female sterilization greatly increased, despite the comparative invasiveness of the procedure.

What of the demographic consequences of the Emergency push for population control?

In demographer Christophe Guilmoto’s analysis, the Emergency led to a sudden fall in total fertility rates during 1975-77 but stalled fertility rates in the longer term. Fertility rates did not begin declining again until 1985.[11] Added to which, fertility rates had already been gradually decreasing since 1971.

In other words, the backlash against the Family Planning Programme following the Emergency resulted in a temporary delay in an otherwise slow but steady fertility decline. 

Yet Indira Gandhi was re-elected in 1980 and, in a remarkable episode of population control amnesia, Gandhi was awarded the United Nations Population Award in 1983 in recognition of her ‘outstanding contribution to the awareness of population questions or to their solutions.’

Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar presenting the 1983 UN Population award to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Attribution: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata.

The then head of the UNFPA defended the award on the basis that the allegations of ‘mandated sterilization’ under Indira Gandhi’s government had ‘never been proven’—despite the Shah Commission of Inquiry having collected and published copious evidence of such violations.[12]

Fortunately, Kanem, the current head of the UNFPA, is more minded to heed the lessons of history.

The current environmental crisis certainly requires action, but the linking of family planning and reproductive health services with population control goals should not be a part of that action.

[1] See Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge, MA; London: Belknap Press, 2008)

[2] Davidson R. Gwatkin, ‘Political Will and Family Planning: The Implications of India’s Emergency Experience’, Population and Development Review, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Mar., 1979), pp. 29-59.

[3] See Mytheli Sreenivas, Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India (University of Washington Press, 2021)

[4] On the input of international donors, see Matthew Connelly, ‘Population Control in India: Prologue to the Emergency Period’, Population and Development Review, Vol. 32, No. 4 (2006), pp. 629-667.

[5] Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971), p. xi

[6] See Mohan Rao, From Population Control to Reproductive Health: Malthusian Arithmetic (New Delhi: Sage, 2004)

[7] Connelly, ‘Population Control in India’, p. 630.

[8] Sanjam Ahluwalia and Daksha Parmar, ‘From Gandhi to Gandhi: Contraceptive Technologies and Sexual Politics in Postcolonial India, 1947-1977’, in Rickie Solinger and Mie Nakachi (eds), Reproductive States: Global Perspectives on the Invention and Implementation of Population Policy (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2015)

[9] Rebecca Williams, ‘Storming the Citadels of Poverty: Family Planning under the Emergency in India, 1975-77’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 73, No. 2 (May 2014), pp. 471-492.

[10] Williams, ‘Storming the Citadels’, p. 485.

[11] Christophe Z. Guilmoto, ‘The Past and Future of Fertility Change in India’, in Christophe Z. Guilmoto & Gavin W. Jones (eds.), Contemporary Demographic Transformations in China, India and Indonesia (Springer, 2016), 119.

[12] Williams, ‘Storming the Citadels’, p. 474.