India’s prime minister has said responsible family planning is an act of “true patriotism” as the country’s burgeoning population is putting a strain on resources, food and infrastructure.
During his Independence Day address on Thursday at the Red Fort in Delhi, Narendra Modi expressed concern over what he called "jansankhya visphot (population explosion)" and called for initiatives to tackle the country's growing size.
This is the first time Mr Modi or his Bharatiya Janata Party government has directly addressed the topic of population control at such a high level.
"There is one issue I want to highlight today,'' he said. “Population explosion. We have to think, can we do justice to the aspirations of our children? There is a need to have greater discussion and awareness on population explosion.
"Population explosion will cause many problems for our future generations. We have to be concerned about population explosion. The centre as well as state governments should launch schemes to tackle it," he said, in what may signal a forthcoming policy announcement.
Mr Modi has never addressed the issue directly, even though others in the broader BJP have raised the need to control the population, as well as politicians from other parties, economists and demographic experts.
The soaring population is a matter of concern, said the PM. "But there is a vigilant section of public which stops to think before bringing a child into the world, whether they can do justice to the child, give them all that she or he wants.
“They deserve respect. What they are doing is an act of patriotism. Let us learn from them," Mr Modi said in his 92-minute televised speech.
With a population of 1.3 billion, India is on the verge of surpassing China as the world's most populous country. According to the United Nations, India is expected to add nearly .
It also has a comparatively young population, with the last census in 2011 showing 45 per cent of Indians are 25 or under, and the country overall having median age of 27.9. In the general election in April and May, there were 45 million first time voters after they had turned 18.
Over the years, it has been a politically awkward subject with governments wary of enforcing any coercive family planning measures, especially as around 70 per cent of Indians live in rural areas and large families have ensured enough hands to till the land and pick the crops.
Some states have tried to tackle the problem through measures like fighting child labour, educational schemes or even banning politicians with more than two children from contesting local elections.
One BJP politician last month called for a ban on families with more than two children being allowed to vote in elections, while another filed a public interest litigation lawsuit at the Delhi High Court, saying a two-child maximum policy needed to be enacted on grounds of public health.
It seems now the Modi administration has decided to take on controlling population growth due to its direct effect on public goods and services to the poor, a priority for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ruling coalition, which has promoted schemes such as every family getting clean cooking fuel, toilets, electricity, solid houses, clean drinking water and healthcare.
The newspaper Mint quoted a government official as saying population growth “is a problem mostly in north Indian states while southern states have achieved the replacement ratio”.
Mr Modi has already announced a target of India’s GDP reaching $5 trillion over the next few years, which the government expects will also improve living standards.
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