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India's Population Time Bomb

A Neohumanist Response

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 2.


In previous editorials in Free Inquiry, I have proposed that the humanist movement needs to organize a new political coalition. I suggest that we call this "neohumanism" - so as to distinguish it from other forms of humanism, which are not concerned with social and political issues. Neohumanism, in my judgment, cuts across the ideological fault lines of the past and reaches out toward a new humanist consensus about issues that are of vital concern, such as morality, in the global civilization that is emerging.

With this in mind I submit that the population problem should be high on this agenda of neohumanist political concerns; that is, we should support all international efforts designed to further family planning on the global scale, thus reducing population growth and ecological devastation and improving living standards. This means that we should support both private voluntary efforts by nonprofit foundations and organizations and public funding by various governments of the world. The United States had taken a leadership role in family planning and population assistance in earlier decades. Unfortunately, the Christian Coalition, in alliance with the Vatican, has in recent years sought to stall such efforts in the U.S. Congress - largely because of theological opposition to both abortion and contraception. Humanists need to persuade their fellow citizens - religious and nonreligious alike - that there is a compelling need to provide contraceptive information to the developing world. Religious Americans, including Roman Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists as distinct from their leaders, are willing to use contraceptives at the same rate as other Americans. Why not make these services available to men and especially women in the developing world who desperately need them? Free Inquiry's special section, guest edited by noted family planning advocate Roy Brown, is dedicated to exploring the consequences of excessive human population and makes several concrete recommendations about what we can do.

The Indian Example

As a background to this urgent problem, I wish to focus on the severe social consequences of the failure to apply family planning methods in countries such as India. I do this because I recently returned from Bombay (now called Mumbai), India, where I attended the Fourteenth International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) World Congress (along with Roy Brown, Family Matters Editor Jan Eisler, and Council for Secular Humanism Executive Director Matt Cherry). Some 600 delegates from all over India and the world participated in this Congress, which was dedicated to the theme, "Humanism for Human Development and Happiness." The meeting, hosted by the Radical Humanist Association of India, was held at the M. N. Roy Centre for Human Development. M. N. Roy was the founder of the Radical Humanist Association (in the 1940s), a secular organization dedicated to the progressive improvement of the human condition by democratic means and cultivating the use of reason and science. This is in sharp contrast to the reigning religious-spiritual outlook that still pervades Indian culture.

The M. N. Roy Centre has focused on family planning as one of its main projects. This effort has been led by Dr. Indumati Parikh, who has been working for over 30 years in Mumbai to improve the health and well-being of the women and children of the slums and who recognized early on that contraception was an important part of the solution. Dr. Parikh's results have been gratifying. They apply the principles of humanism in practice - focusing on the needs of the individual rather than directly on wider social or demographic targets. We learned that Hindu nationalists, who now dominate the city government of Mumbai, are attempting to undermine their efforts. The Centre has not been completed due to a lack of funds, and Hindu politicians have attempted to repossess it.

The central question of the Congress was: What can we do to improve the standard of living and cultural environment of the Indian masses? It is clear that the need to stabilize population growth should be high on the agenda. Many affluent countries have managed to stem the rate of population increase. Although there has been some decrease in the birthrate in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, these efforts have frequently been too little and too late. India vividly illustrates the social disaster that runaway population has caused.

It has been two decades since I last visited India, yet I was not prepared for the extent of poverty and squalor and the great number of beggars that we encountered on virtually every street corner and back alley - this has increased enormously since my last visit - and it deeply shocked IHEU delegates from the Western world. India now has over 960 million people, and demographers predict that its population will eventually outstrip China's. Twenty years ago the Indian government was committed to making birth-control information available - including contraceptives, vasectomies, sterilizations, and abortions - but these programs were driven by purely demographic objectives, treated women as statistics, and were deeply unpopular. It is significant that in one state in India, Kerala, where for decades individual well-being has been the driving force behind social programs, family sizes have fallen, so population growth has slowed, life expectancy is as high as in the United States, and the quality of life has raced ahead. But Kerala is the exception. In most of India today these programs are languishing and the misery index seems to be rising as a result. Many Indians believe that children are "gifts of the gods," or they wish to have large families - especially many sons - to support them in their old age. Our taxi-cab driver during the Congress, a friendly Muslim, related to us that he had six children, and that they lived in a room 10' x 10', yet he wished to have still more children! Unfortunately, many families still do not have adequate contraceptive information or the means to practice birth control. Obviously, some people might like to have smaller families, but they don't know it's possible, particularly if they are illiterate.

Many other reasons prompt Indians to strive for large families. A major one is high infant mortality. This is a factor in most poor countries, or at any rate among the very poor in most third world countries. Often women don't want to talk about contraception; they want help to stop their children from dying. This was Dr. Parikh's experience in Mumbai. There is a need to provide for one's old age in a country without a public welfare system. Then there is also the weight of religion and cultural practice, which limit the power of women. Females are abused from the very start - female fetuses are often aborted, and some, if they are born, are killed by their parents. Generally, women would like smaller families, but they don't have the clout with their husbands. There is also a perception in many developing countries that the North focuses on population in the South and uses it as a neo-colonialist stick to beat the South with. It is because of such criticisms that, since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the focus has moved from contraception or family planning to reproductive health and child care. After all, how could a humanist justify giving a woman contraceptives but leaving her to die in childbirth or her baby to die soon after? People like Dr. Parikh understand that the poor, and particularly poor women, need help to help themselves first and foremost and that family planning is only part of the picture.

In any case, there is strong resistance to population policies, particularly by both Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists. An estimated 300 million Indians are now below the poverty level. Unless there is a deceleration of these growth patterns, many predict a social explosion in coming years. The infrastructures of cities such as Mumbai are stretched to the limit. Mumbai is India's leading commercial city, yet its water, sewer, and sanitation systems and roads are decaying. The plight of other cities and villages in the interior is far worse. According to Amartya Sen, India's Nobel Prize-winning economist, the literacy rate in India is 52% of adults, and malnourishment strikes 64% of its children. A recent study showed that more than half of the children under 12 in seven Indian cities are afflicted with lead poisoning. The situation is grave.

There are surely some bright spots in India. It is still the largest parliamentary democracy in the world. Moreover, since 1991 large-scale capital has been invested in India, and a new software computer industry has developed in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and elsewhere. This is due in large part to the removal of burdensome governmental regulations and the opening up of a free market for foreign capital. Indian computer specialists are now regarded among the best in the world. As a result of this and other industrial developments, a growing middle class of some 250 million people is emerging. Yet for every step forward, the growth of population drains resources and impedes any appreciable advance in the standard of living. Mumbai's pollution is enormous - there are few catalytic converters on automobiles and taxis and unbelievable traffic jams fill the air with unbreathable smog. With open sewers everywhere in evidence, health standards, particularly for children, are difficult to maintain. Indeed, at the Centre where we met, nearby swamps were infested with mosquitoes, and many IHEU delegates were fearful of contracting malaria, filariasis, and other diseases.

Nonetheless, our Indian colleagues - representing at least a dozen humanist, secular, rationalist, skeptical, and atheist groups on the subcontinent, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of supporters throughout India - are dedicated to the improvement of the living conditions of the poor. They are keenly aware of India's problems, and they have resolved to do something about it. They are especially distressed by the religious superstitions that permeate Indian culture, the intolerable repression of women, and the continuance of the caste system, in spite of efforts to prohibit it. They are alarmed by the resurgence of Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism. The Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, which has grown in strength, has attempted to modify the secular constitution inaugurated by Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and has exacerbated the nuclear-arms race with Pakistan. Intense religious hatred and intolerance, especially between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, have led to communal riots. Indeed, while we were in India the media reported there were violent attacks on Christians in the state of Gujarat.

Generally the humanists of India have taken as their top priority the need for a basic cultural renaissance in which education has the highest priority. This includes the need to cultivate an appreciation for critical thinking and science, the values of individual freedom and autonomy, self-determination and self-respect. Humanists believe that, if India is to enter fully into the modern world, each individual needs to improve his or her own condition in life. Indians need to take responsibility for their own destiny. But if they are to succeed, the rest of the world, I submit, has an obligation to help them by providing the tools. The distinguished French astrophysicist Jean-Claude Pecker felt pessimistic about the enormity of the problem and expressed some reservations about what we in the humanist world can do to help. In my address to the Congress I argued for the need for courage and determination, not despair or nihilism, and I was pleased by the positive response that this evinced from the delegates present.

An Ethic of Caring

I submit that neohumanists need to defend the ethical principle that we have a responsibility to care about each and every person in the planetary community, and that this obligation should extend beyond our own societies to humanity as a whole. We cannot and should not abandon our fellow human beings in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Given this ethical principle intrinsic to the global community, there are a number of practical programs of action that follow. High on the list is the need to support family planning efforts, to improve nutrition and health, to advance programs of modern education, to protect the environment, and to encourage foreign capital investments in new industries. Many in the West have been rightly concerned about the nuclear bombs that India and Pakistan have tested. The real bomb, in my view, that we should be concerned about, is the population time bomb; and the neohumanist worldwide political coalition, wherever possible, should cooperate in attempting to defuse it. We should do this not only because it is in the interest of the people who live in those countries, but it is in our own long-range self-interest to help secure a safe, healthy, inhabitable planet. The humanist approach must focus on the needs of the individual families as perhaps the best way to stem population growth and also improve the health and standard of living of ordinary people.


Paul Kurtz is the Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry Magazine.


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