‘Family planning is not just controlling numbers’
Jyoti Shankar Singh has been the longest serving United Nations official in the population field. A former deputy executive director of UNFPA, he played a pivotal role as executive coordinator of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. He is also author of a recently published book, Creating a New Consensus on Population. He spoke to Rahul Singh:
Has the concept of family planning changed over the years?
Yes, it is not just a question of controlling numbers; it relates to health, education and contraceptive services. That is why the ICPD was so significant. It did what no population conference had before, by adopting a 20-year framework of action. Family planning was broadened to include provision of reproductive health services, reduction of infant mortality, improvement in maternal health, education and women’s empowerment.
What has been achieved since 1994?
Gains have been made in reducing infant mortality, and the concept of reproductive health has gained increasing acceptance around the world.
There is a lack of sufficient funding: 120 million couples still lack access to reproductive health commodities and services, and maternal mortality sadly remains at a very high level. Education, particularly for girls, has not yet been fully achieved.
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were laid down by the United Nations over two decades ago. What were the most important ones?
The most important goal was reducing by half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. There were about 1.25 billion people in developing countries living on less than $1 a day (defined as extreme poverty) in 1990. Since then, there has been an impressive reduction in poverty in China and even in India the overall poverty rate has come down, though in Africa the rate has come down at a much slower pace.
Other goals include universal primary education, with particular attention to girls, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health. Promoting gender equality and empowering women, along with ensuring environmental sustainability, are two other MDGs that have acquired increasing urgency in recent years.
How has India done?
Better than many demographers claim. Most of India has moved towards population stabilisation. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, once part of the BIMARU states, have done well lately, but Bihar and eastern UP remain problem areas. India’s maternal death rate is also much too high: if health services were within easy reach, the rate could be reduced by half.
Some Indian states are passing legislation that does not permit candidates with more than two children to stand for political office. Will such measures work?
I don’t have the details but no country in the world has succeeded in making a serious impact on population growth by such coercive measures.
There is a widespread perception that Islam is opposed to family planning. How correct is this?
Not correct. Take Iran, Indonesia, Turkey and Tunisia, to name just four major Islamic countries. They all promote family planning and have been successful in reducing population growth, even more successful than India.