New Internationalist

A Tale of Three Villages

Issue 088

Whatever the government’s policy may be, different people in different economic circumstances have different views about family planning. New Internationalist co-editor Peter Stalker, on sabbatical to the Press Institute of India, reports from three different villages in the State of Uttar Pradesh.

Peter Stalker
Durvijay Singh and family: 'We have been too concerned with everyday problems to think about the future'. Peter Stalker

‘We would rather die than get sterilised ,’ says Dhani, a landless labourer, looking at us suspiciously.

Fifty year old Ram Chand is more relaxed: ‘We know that family planning is good for us,’ he says, ‘ I was sterilised eighteen years ago,’

And somewhere between the two if Durvijay Singh: ‘ Family planning? We have been too busy keeping alive to think about the future - but now 1 wonder what there will be for my sons.’

Three men in three different villages - they happen to be in Uttar Pradesh but they could be almost anywhere in India. Each has a different outlook on family size and each shows that for all that family planning is a ‘national’ objective it is one that relies very much on individual decisions. Even in the same corner of the same state the perspectives in three villages are radically different. So preaching the same population slogan to all three seems somehow pointless - like prescribing the same medicine for three entirely different diseases.

Take Ashakhera village. It had its share of coercion during the Emergency. As one youth explained: ‘ the police even beat up eligible men who wouldn’t undergo vasectomy.’ Since then they have heard very little from the government about family planning. But in fact neither coercion nor its absence seem to have had much impact on their opinions - they know themselves what to think and do about family planning.

The reason is not hard to find when one looks around. Of the village’s 4,000 people most are upper caste. There are three schools and the literacy rate is high - most men reach the high school level. And there is usually enough for one square meal a day. Ashakhera has achieved that minimum level of economic development and education at which people can see that family planning is in their interests.

‘I wanted three boys,’ says Mr. Tiwari, ‘ and to get them I had to have six children.

I know that with the land I have I couldn’t afford any more.’ His neighbours say that this is a ‘model village’ and they don’t need coercion. Tiwari himself was sterilised 14 years ago.

His son takes the decision one step further. A temporary worker in a telephone exchange, he is not even concerned about the sex of his children: "I already have one child, a girl, and I will only have one more - boy or girl - I can’t imagine myself supporting any more."

But only a few kilometres away the story is very different. Banthara is a poorer village sharply divided by caste and land ownership. "We are never sure where our next meal is coming from," says Dhani a Harijan landless labourer. ‘The biggest problem we have is to stay alive.’ Over half the population is landless and resigned to a desperate struggle for survival.

For all their lack of education, Dhani and his neighbours have come to a very rational decision about how many children to have - as many as possible. ‘The more people there are to work,’ they argue, ‘the more money will come into the family.’ Fate will determine the size of the family and if fate brings a lot of sons, so much the better.

Had they land of their own they might be more concerned about how to share it out. But there is little likelihood of that. Here, as in so many other places, land reform has largely been on paper only. Power remains with the upper castes, mostly Thakurs, who not only have the land but also manage to corner any help that comes from government officials, both for agricultural inputs and drought relief. ‘ Most of the food, medicines and kerosene that comes as relief they manage to sell on the black market,’ the Harijans claim.

For the poor of Banthara their labour is the only source of wealth - so children are likely to remain an asset, however small. But in the next village that we visited down the road, Ballukhera, it is beginning to dawn that is not the case.

Balukhera is tiny. There are only 40 houses and it is not all that wealthy. ‘We get about 10 quintals (1,000 Kg.) of wheat a year,’ explains Durvijay Singh. ‘About half of that we sell for clothing, or to pay off our debts, and rest we eat.’ But the critical difference between here and Banthara is the distribution of land. Here every farmer was given the land that he was tilling when the zamindars (landlords) were abolished back in 1951.

With each subsequent generation, however, there has been less to go round. ‘ My grandfather Prahlad Singh had eight acres ,’ says Durjivay, "and he had two sons who got four each. But my father had four sons so that all we have is one acre each.’ The same is true for the other families, with the result that the young men are increasingly having to look outside the village for work.

And it is when you start to talk about employment that family planning begins to make sense to them. Professor Ashish Bose, who has helped to draw up India’s national development plans, feels that rather than trying to persuade parents that they themselves would be happy with a smaller family it is more convincing to talk about what life is going to be like for the children.

‘The most important part of economic development,’ he says, ‘is hope. The moment you have hope you have all the difference between stagnation and growth.’ Parents concerned that their children should have a better life know that there is only so much money available to invest in their education - so the fewer children the better. This is what is called the ‘capillary effect’ which compares development with water climbing up a tube. The narrower the tube the higher the water will climb.

Peter Stalker
Durvijay's brother Heera - three year search for a job. Peter Stalker

Durvijay’s family know what a struggle that climb can be. Two of the brothers now work outside the village. After three years of searching, 27-year-old Heera finally got a job as a bus conductor. For his elder brother Sarbjit they got a ‘Tempo’ (3 wheeler) taxi but this proved to be a loss-maker, so they had to get rid of it. ‘ Then,’ as he explains, ‘ someone said that they could get me a job at Scooters-India if I gave them 200 rupees. But they tricked me; there was no job.’ Several years later however he has managed to get a job with the company.

In the past fifteen years the population of Balukhera has grown from 100 to 175. And although so far few p.eople have left the village more are now likely to go off in search of work. So Ballukhera has reached that critical point where family planning makes sense not just in terms of present day pressure but aspirations for the future.

‘We have been too concerned with everyday problems to think about the future of our children,’ Durjivay admits. ‘ But now we see that if we want them to get a good technical education we won’t be able to afford it for a lot of children.’

In Ashakhera, the more developed village, this realisation came some time ago - for development itself is the best motivator. For the poor of Banthara arguments about family planning make little sense - and an economic system that makes the present so desperate can hardly demand that they also worry about the future.

But in Ballukhera the future is about to start. There are not enough villages in this position, where a measure of social justice gives everyone a stake in development. But if the proponents of family planning are to find willing listeners they will have to seek out many more such opportunities - or create them.

Depthneivs, India

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