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Population, Environment and Development

Socio-Cultural Pitfalls Planners must Avoid

Ashish Bose

In an era of economic liberalisation, privatisation and increasing globalisation, economics will dominate the scene unless vigorous efforts are made to safeguard the socio-cultural environment. In spite of the famous conferences at Stockholm (1972) and Rio (1992), and the increasing concern for the environment, there is a tendency to think of the physical environment alone. The socio-cultural environment gets a back seat. Therefore any attempt to relate culture with development is welcome.

There is considerable ‘cultural illiteracy’ among our policy-makers, planners, administrators and experts (Indian as well as foreign) which comes in the way of the success of many developmental projects launched with good intentions. By ‘cultural illiteracy’ we mean ignorance of socio-cultural factors affecting development, inadequate acquaintance with grassroots reality and a lack of comprehension of the vital role which culture plays in the development process.

During my field work in various parts of India over the last three decades, I have learnt the need for collecting data on socio-cultural factors in all benchmark surveys, resurveys, evaluation surveys, etc. I propose to discuss a few case studies on the intimate link between culture and development.

Case study 1: The buffalo meat processing plant in Punjab

The most recent example of the relevance of the cultural context in development plans in the post-economic liberalisation era that I have come across is in the prosperous state of Punjab. A private limited company wants to operate a 100 per cent export-oriented buffalo meat processing plant near Derabassi in Patiala District, on which it wants to invest Rs.480 million. The company has a valid licence from the Government of Punjab. The people in that area as well as a leading political party strongly protested against the functioning of this plant on religious grounds. This led to a confrontation between the Government of Punjab and the private company. The Chief Minister of Punjab finally made a statement in the state assembly (Vidhan Sabha) that the government had decided to close down the plant in deference to the wishes of the people. The Chief Minister said that there were three aspects of this factory, namely economic, medical and religious. While he had no quarrel with the economic aspect of the project, he had serious reservations about ignoring the religious aspect (Tribune, Chandigarh, 29 March 1995). The Chief Minister also asserted at a public meeting that ‘the killing of animals to fill human stomachs was irreligious’ and therefore his government would not allow the newly set up slaughter-house to function (Hindu, Delhi, 1 April 1995). There is no doubt that a 100 per cent export-oriented meat industry would have brought considerable money and foreign exchange to Punjab, but obviously neither the private company which decided to set up the factory nor the state government, which gave a licence for it, had given any thought to the socio-cultural and religious aspects of this plant. As a result, this company was put to a tremendous loss, which could have been avoided if a proper market survey had been conducted with imagination to include socio-cultural factors.

This reminds me of a very ambitious project to generate electricity through bullock power which was launched by an American philanthropist in an Indian village in the early 1960s. Among other things, the project wanted to improve the nutrition level of the rural people. The sponsors built a huge tank for fish culture with the aim of adding to the protein content in the diet of the villagers. As the whole project had an air of secrecy (because the sponsors were not sure whether they would ultimately succeed in generating electricity through bullock power) and the village people were not taken into confidence at any stage, when the tank was built and the villagers were told about the nutritional value of fish, they retorted: ‘But we are Gujars and therefore vegetarian, we will not eat fish’. I had a close interaction with these village people as I was conducting a demographic survey with my research team from the Institute of Economic Growth in this very village. When I asked the villagers why on earth they did not tell the foreign experts that they were vegetarians, their reply was: ‘Nobody asked us if we eat fish, and when we saw the tank being built we thought it was a dhobi talao (tank for washing clothes).’ To my mind, this is a glaring example of cultural illiteracy. The project failed on economic grounds also because the cost of generating electricity through bullock power was found prohibitive. All that the foreign donor succeeded in demonstrating was that it was possible by an accelerated rotation of a specially designed machine to generate electricity through bullock power. But this could have been demonstrated anywhere in the world. There was no need for the sponsors to come to India. For the record, I may be permitted to state that as the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was enthusiastic about this project since the sponsors had told him that this new technology would revolutionise Indian villages, as a young researcher I had managed to convey to Pandit Nehru that the project was a failure and there was no such revolution. I am sure that the Prime Minister must have got similar information from other sources also, and his enthusiasm for this project evaporated in no time. The foreign philanthropist had to hand over the project to a foreign foundation which, in turn, wanted to hand it over to the villagers: but there were no takers. When I asked the village leaders about this project they said: ‘It is much better to buy a diesel generator and draw water from the well. Besides, our bullocks are not strong enough to generate so many rotations of the wheel at such a high speed. We will have to buy very sturdy bullocks and the cost of feeding them will be prohibitive. If the donors had told us what they were doing, we could have given them all this information; but nobody consulted us’.

Case study 2: People’s participation in a health and family welfare project

The case study above shows a complete lack of people’s participation in a project which was supposed to benefit them. I shall now give a case study where the donors insisted on people’s participation right from the beginning. These projects are called ‘area projects’ and are funded by donor agencies like the World Bank, UNFPA, USAID, DANIDA, etc. These were well-meaning health and family planning projects aimed at ensuring that the para-medical personnel were within the reach of the people in order to improve the rural health delivery system. In those days, there was a Primary Health Centre (PHC) for every 100,000 people. Each PHC had several sub-centres and each sub-centre was meant for 5000 people. At the sub-centres there was provision for one male multi-purpose worker (MPW) and one female multi-purpose worker (called ANM — auxiliary nurse midwife).

The area projects stipulated that at each sub-centre a one-room residential unit would be built with an adjacent courtyard, and next to the courtyard there would be the sub-centre dispensary. It was felt that access to health care was limited as public health workers had no place to stay near the sub-centres. Further, as there was no proper building for the dispensary, the health service was poor. The investment on this physical infrastructure of a dispensary and residential unit for the ANM was intended to go a long way in strengthening the rural health delivery system. The foreign sponsors insisted that it should not be a giver approach and there must the fullest participation of the people. Under the area projects, the village councils or pancayats had to give land for the construction of the sub-centres and the nurse’s quarters. Enormous funds were sanctioned to the government by the foreign donor agencies for creating this infrastructure.

At the request of the then Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, I had, along with my research team, tried to assess the working of these projects in several parts of India during 1983-85. In my judgement, most of the projects had failed. One important factor contributing to the failure was the giving of free land by the pancayats for this project. Theoretically it could be agreed that in a poor country villagers would not be able to contribute any money which could match the money put in by foreign donor agencies, and therefore the only thing that the villagers could collectively do to show their participation was to donate land. But what was not realised was that in an agricultural country the most precious asset is land. As a result, what actually happened was that the worst possible land on the outskirts of the village or some low-lying area or uninhabitable land was donated to the sub-centres. As a result, when the sub-centres were built, no nurse could stay in them because of sheer physical insecurity. As one of these nurses observed: ‘Some mad dog must have bitten the experts in New Delhi. How can they think of locating sub-centres in such lonely places and ask an ANM to stay there? Even in the daytime we did not feel safe, let alone at night’. The ANMs never stayed at the newly-built sub-centres.

I asked one of the foreign sponsors why there was no provision for housing of the male multi-purpose workers. His reply was, ‘We were told that in India it would be scandalous if we built two adjacent quarters, one for the male MPW and the other one for the female MPW’. Such reasoning assumes that nurses stay alone in India. The ground reality is that in this type of situation, there would always be a family with the ANM; and the same would be true of the male MPW. As a nurse explained to me, if at least there were two families staying side by side, the ANMs would have felt somewhat secure.

To me, the area projects are glaring examples of cultural illiteracy on the part of foreign experts and Indian bureaucrats and their near-complete ignorance of ground reality. Again for the sake of the record, I wish to state that my confidential report was so disturbing for the Ministry of Health & FW that a copy was sent to the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. He acted quickly and a high-powered Steering Committee (as suggested by me) was appointed to look into the area projects. I was drafted as a member of this Committee, but to my surprise, instead of interaction with the foreign donor agencies, the same set of bureaucrats was brought together with one or two non-official members, to discuss the area projects. It was a futile exercise and nothing came of it. After Rajiv Gandhi, no Health Minister has bothered to look into the socio-cultural dimensions of the area projects, which is quite understandable as the only concern is for the foreign exchange component of these funds.

The donor agencies have also recognised that these projects did not quite succeed and the accent now is on training. While training and upgrading medical skills is important, the neglect of the socio-cultural environment may make such training ineffective. India’s family planning programme is not sensitive to gender issues. One may ask: Why are 96 per cent of the sterilisations female sterilisations? Why have the men walked out of the programme? Can we succeed merely by giving more incentive money for male sterilisations compared to female sterilisations? Are there deep-rooted social and psychological factors conditioning Indian society? In short, contraceptive technology, no matter how good it is, will not succeed if we ignore the social and cultural context. What sort of training do the area projects give to take note of this vital cultural context? India’s family planning programme will not succeed unless we get out of the sterilisation trap and look beyond contraceptive technology. Thanks to the increasing funds and the growing number of foreign donors and the mushrooming of foreign-funded NGOs, there is every possibility that NGOs will jump onto the international bandwagon and make a further mess of the family planning programme. We must beware of the kubuddhi (bad advice) of culturally illiterate experts, both Indian and foreign.

Case study 3: Overcoming the son-complex through IEC

Information, education and communication (IEC) is an international buzzword and all family planning programmes, whether funded by the Government of India or by foreign donor agencies, allocate large sums for it. Our field work experience is that much of this money is wasted. In fact, we have lampooned IEC as ‘incompetence, extravagance and corruption’. Under conditions of mass illiteracy, what information do we give to our masses? Is it enough to devise a red triangle for family planning services? Will people make a beeline for contraceptives wherever they see a red triangle?

This reminds me of a hilarious episode. In the early 1960s a communication expert from the West came to advise the Government of India about propagating the small family norm among the rural masses. His strategy to overcome the constraint of illiteracy was to buy an elephant, put a red triangle on its decorative cloth and parade the animal from village to village to convince people about the ‘elephantine’ nature of India’s population problem! This culturally illiterate expert did not know that an elephant in Indian mythology stands for prosperity — the elephant was born in the clouds, which bring rain and therefore prosperity in an agricultural country. Indian temples are full of the elephant motif and several Western scholars have worked on this symbolism in temple architecture. To cut a long story short, the elephant project was a disastrous failure and the elephant died of starvation.

A marked bias for sons is a cultural trait in India and many other Asian countries. Is the son-complex basically a religious phenomenon as most Western experts think? My field work convinces me that the son-complex is basically a strategy for survival and an economic phenomenon. The empirical evidence shows that most traditional families in India (except in Kerala and some communities in North-East India and a few other places) would like to have at least two sons before they think of family planning. To overcome this bias for sons, the Family Welfare Department spends a lot of money putting out posters and advertisements on radio and TV saying that ‘son or daughter — it is all the same’, ‘a girl is as good as a boy’, etc. Many posters show a couple with only one daughter with a beaming smile, with the red triangle in the background.

We were doing field work in Rajasthan. Our survey showed that every family gave more or less the same answer: ‘We want two sons’. For a moment, I thought the investigators had filled up the schedules sitting in a coffee house! But I had full faith in their integrity. I went from village to village and got the same answer. Finally, I asked a village woman why she wanted to have two sons. She retorted quickly: ‘Is this a question to ask? Why do you have two eyes?’ I could not answer this question. The Rajasthani village woman put her hand on one eye and elaborated: ‘If one eye is lost, the other eye will still remain’. This set me thinking and I coined the term ‘demographic fundamentalism’ to indicate the inherent desire for two sons, a phenomenon which cuts across socio-economic classes and is both rural and urban. It is broadly true of all religious communities also.

The question is: ‘Can we overcome demographic fundamentalism by the IEC strategy and by saying that it makes no difference whether one’s child is a boy or a girl?’ When I discussed the government poster with villagers in different parts of India, I got responses like the following:‘How can the government say such foolish things? The girl has to be married and we have to save money and pay a dowry. Will the government pay the dowry? When the girls are married away, where is my family? If we have no sons, who will look after us in old age? Will the government take care of us?’ These are valid points. In a country where social security is confined to government employees and the organised sector, the rural masses are just left out. It is only family solidarity which sustains them. It is wrong to think that it is only in old age that one has to depend on sons. Throughout one’s lifetime one has to depend on sons in an agricultural country. The land has to be protected from intruders, the property has to be saved from floods and other natural disasters, and so on. When the breadwinner falls ill, even minor sons step in and keep the family going. It is not religion per se and the thought of rituals after death which worry the average rural family but the fear of unemployment, sickness and economic insecurity. Thus parents feel secure if there are at least two sons.

Unless there is an objective change in the economic condition of the people and their basic needs are met, I do not see how any IEC strategy alone can lead to the acceptance of family planning. The successful demographic transition in Kerala and Tamil Nadu has many lessons for us, but given the demographic diversity of India it would be hazardous to make any generalisation. In fact, one should guard against demographic pitfalls which are largely statistical in nature. To give one example, when the 1991 census results were declared, there was a feeling of elation in some government circles that the literacy rate had risen to 52 per cent, i.e. the majority of Indians were literate for the first time. But this overall figure is highly misleading. The same census also revealed that only 39 per cent of females were literate; that is to say, the majority of girls and women in India were illiterate. Or take the figure for the birth rate. According to the Registrar General’s SRS figures for 1993, the overall birth rate in India was 28.5 per 1,000, but it was as high as 36 in UP and as low as 17 in Kerala. Or take the infant mortality rate (IMR). It was 74 in India as a whole but 110 in Orissa and 13 in Kerala. Such striking demographic diversity makes generalisations and models untenable in India.


The three case studies we have presented raise important policy issues which deserve careful thought from our planners and policy-makers as well as from researchers. If we want to improve the quality of life, it is not enough to be guided by purely economic considerations and the profit motive or the prospect of earning foreign exchange. If the Punjab Government is forced to close down a buffalo meat exporting factory on religious grounds, it cannot be dubbed communal. As the Chief Minister rightly said: ‘There are three aspects, economic, medical and religious’. If the social environment is polluted by such slaughter-houses, policy-makers must act. But the question is (and this was also raised by the Punjab Chief Minister): What happens to slaughter-houses all over India? Maneka Gandhi, an environmental activist and a former Minister for Environment, did succeed in getting a semblance of medical and environmental cleanliness in the slaughter-houses of Delhi by going to the court. Can we introduce environmentally safe and humane measures in all slaughter-houses or is there no such thing as a ‘humane measure’ when one takes to killing? Should the whole country opt for vegetarian food? What should be our development strategy for food and nutrition, keeping in mind the socio-cultural dimensions of non-vegetarian food?

Next we come to people’s participation in health and family planning programmes. Insisting that villagers should give free land for building sub-centres is a misguided strategy and should be undone. After the passing of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution and the empowerment of pancayats, the people will have a greater say in implementing developmental programmes at the local level. Implementation of health and population control programmes has been included in the functions of the pancayats. The question of the insecurity of the nurses working in the sub-centres must be squarely tackled by the pancayats. If this problem is not solved, access to health care in rural areas will remain problematical. An alternative health development strategy which relies on the local people to deliver health services can be visualised, where the nurses will stay with their own families in their own houses and serve the local community. This calls for recruitment and training at the local level rather than a policy of recruiting nurses from outside who will face perpetually the problem of staying in secluded areas in houses built by the government on land donated by villagers. Is it possible to have hostels for nurses in selected rural areas and give them vehicles to go to their places of work and bring them back? Should we opt for husband and wife teams of multi-purpose workers?

A lot of thought must go into evolving a health delivery strategy at the grassroots level, keeping in mind India’s demographic diversity. Socio-cultural factors and gender issues must not take a back seat in evolving such strategies.

Finally, on the difficult question of communicating effectively with the illiterate masses, a fundamental question to ask would be: Why keep the masses illiterate? On the question of the son-complex one would ask: Why deny social security to the rural masses?

The International Conference on Population and Development at Cairo (1994) formulated an elaborate programme of action and asked for more funds for expanding family planning programmes in the developing countries. The Swaminathan Committee on Population Policy (1994) asked for a paradigm shift in our plans and programmes for curbing population growth. The paradigm shift is to move away from the present sterilisation-centred family planning programme to an integrated programme which will take full note of the eco-system, gender issues, basic needs and democratic norms. The policy advocated is pro-nature, pro-women, pro-poor and pro-democracy. The policy (draft) links population to social development and urges the government to appoint an independent Population and Social Development Commission. The emphasis, however, is not on apex institutions but on effective participatory planning and implementation of programmes at the district level. It is proposed that each district should draw up its own socio-demographic charter.

Unity in diversity is a good national slogan, but when this diversity is reflected in demographic imbalance between states and regions and between socio-economic groups and communities within a region, it should cause concern. There should be effective developmental strategies aimed at reducing such imbalances and ensuring equity. Jumping onto the bandwagon of globalisation is not the answer to these problems. Our cultural values must counteract the mindless consumerism propagated through the electronic media. The population problem of India cannot be solved by gimmicks.

The current strategy of family planning, based on technology and monetary incentives and the use of the electronic media, may appeal to the West as a solution to India’s population problem. But in our view, it will not succeed. In a lighter vein, we call this strategy COMIEC, where CO stands for contraceptive technology, M for monetary incentives and IEC for information, education and communication.

The strategy we are advocating can be summed up in the acronym BLISS, where B stands for basic needs, LI for literacy, S for secondary level schooling and the second S for skill formation.

Considering population size, per capita income and the level of poverty, South Asia is indeed the world’s leading problem region. One does not have to argue much in favour of effective poverty alleviation programmes. In our scheme of things, family planning should be an integral part of all poverty alleviation programmes. This does not mean that ration cards should be denied to persons with more than two children and maternity leave should be denied to women with more than two children. India is proud of her democracy and there should be no aberration in our democratic norms of behaviour, including reproductive behaviour. In a people-oriented family planning programme, the government must apply its mind to fulfilling the basic needs of the people, which include primary health care. According to the philosophy of Jawaharlal Nehru, health includes family planning. Therefore, we challenge the school of thought which relies heavily on technology, money power, and media power to motivate poor, illiterate, malnourished Indian masses to take to family planning. Development is the best contraceptive and the vicious circle of poverty and population can be broken only if we give the same attention to poverty as we give to population.

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