April, 2015

Crowded: Population Politics and Reproductive Rights

The University hosted Dr Betsy Hartmann to deliver a guest lecture on population politics and women’s sexual health and rights. Sonali Chowdhry writes a synopsis

Even as developing nations urgently think of creative ways to provide education, shelter, nutrition, healthcare and connectivity to their burgeoning numbers, Japan and European nations grapple with an ageing and contracting citizenry. State interventions have extensively promoted small family sizes in countries with high population density while tax cuts and cash transfers have been offered to incentivize marriages and child birth for couples in countries with low and declining fertility rates. An examination of population challenges thus reveals layers of complexity, driven by their unique structures across nations and in the nature of spill-over effects. It is then inevitable for demographic trends and forecasts to have historically influenced governments’ domestic and foreign policies. Additionally, the interactions of demographic variables with the political economy, a fragile ecology, international relations and gender equality are fraught with contrasting experiences that prevent formulation of an overarching theory.

It was in this heavily contested research and policy space that Ashoka University hosted Betsy Hartmann, Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, USA and Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health at JNU in India, to deliver a lecture on population politics and women’s sexual health and rights.


Dr Betsy Hartmann with students at Ashoka University


Professor Hartmann began by outlining a brief history of the evolving intellectual tradition in demographic studies. She delved into criticisms of the Malthusian notion that exponential growth in human numbers erodes all material improvements and perpetuates subsistence living, assuming arithmetical growth in food production. While there is certainly an argument to be made on the pressures exerted by population on natural resources, indiscriminate adoption of Malthusian principles can curtail individual liberties through forced sterilization camps or one-child policies. An alternative lens to understand the issue is by considering overconsumption and not overpopulation as the primary cause of environmental degradation. The Demographic Transition theory offers an escape from the dismal Malthusian predicament by suggesting that as countries progress, improving food output and healthcare will eventually lead to declining death rates that cause birth rates to similarly re-adjust, reducing population growth rates over time. Economic literature also propounds competing theories that link population growth with dilution of capital per capita and hence lower productivity or in contrast, with increased rates of technological progress.

Addressing the topic of her extensive scholarship, Prof. Hartmann highlighted how advocates of women’s reproductive rights have to contend simultaneously with groups on opposing ends of the spectrum – anti-abortion conservative groups and supporters of compulsory sterilization programs. In this context, the UN International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was remarkable in its articulation of women’s rights in making autonomous and informed decisions about their bodies.

Reflecting on India’s history of population control, Prof. Hartmann posited that the burden of containing population figures has effectively shifted to women after the backlash from men under Indira Gandhi’s family planning initiative. Such target-oriented family planning schemes distort incentives, violate freedoms and culminate in gross medical negligence as evidenced by the tragic death of women at Bilaspur’s sterilization camps in 2014.

There is an extensive debate on contraceptive methods such as the Sayana Press – an injectable contraceptive priced at a dollar that has been actively encouraged by aid agencies but which could have harmful side-effects for women. Hence the test for concerned stakeholders lies in meeting women’s demands for child-spacing and contraception albeit through transparent, noncoercive and safe practices. Sexual health clinics can create greater impact by becoming cognizant of domestic abuse as well.

There is another intriguing dimension of population studies – demography as a ground for divisive politics. Recent examples of this include the use of anti-immigrant or ‘love jihad’ rhetoric that break social cohesion by inciting fear of being out-numbered and dominated by the ‘other’. Apocalyptic pronouncements on the projected decline of Christians in Europe or the white population in America feed on similar apprehensions. The influx of climate change and conflict refugee populations across neighbouring borders can fuel dispute in the absence of mechanisms that integrate these vulnerable communities into local economies of host nations.

Campaigns to cut population numbers through enforcement not only undercut democratic rights but also shift focus away from investing in better solutions that could enable increasing numbers to equitably inhabit the planet – innovative technologies that diversify the energy basket and improve resource efficiency.

(The writer is Fellow at Young India Fellowship, Class of 2015 and a Rhodes Scholar)


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