By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
NEW DELHI — Aastha Arora is one in a billion. At least that’s what they called her when she was born on May 11, 2000.
Designated with great fanfare as the symbolic 1 billionth Indian, Aastha — her name means “faith” in Hindi — is now called something different. “They call me ‘the special child’ at school,” the perky sixth-grader said, in the family’s two-room apartment. “Teachers, friends know about the big ruckus when I was born.”
In the last 11 years, India has added 240 million people and, according to U.N. estimates, is on target to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation in 2020.
Aastha’s mother, Anjana, recalls being wheeled out of the delivery room after a tough birth, more difficult than that of Aastha’s brother, only to face about 100 television cameras.
“This is like a dream,” she told a reporter at the time, even as she feared for her baby’s health with all the commotion.
While China has slowed its birthrate dramatically under a controversial one-child campaign, India has relied on voluntary measures. India’s fertility rate has dropped by more than half since 1950, but progress has been uneven because population planning programs are run by individual states, not the central government.
India enacted more coercive methods from 1975 to 1977 during the so-called emergency period, which left a bitter taste. Ratna Jaitley, 75, then a teacher at a government school in New Delhi, said she was ordered to find men to sterilize or risk losing her job, a demand justified at the time for reasons of national development.
With great anguish, she offered up two families that washed and ironed clothes, one with six children, the other with eight, figuring they’d already had quite a few offspring.
“A lot of people in my position took undue advantage of the poor and the uneducated,” she said. “Many childless and newly married were sterilized.”
Even as some economists talk about India’s ‘population dividend’ in coming years — the idea being that young populations tend to be more economically vibrant and productive — that’s premised in part on educating the citizenry and providing suitable opportunities.
But some are skeptical, given India’s spotty record in preparing young people for the job market.
“There are quite a few challenges for India ahead,” said K. Srinivasan, professor emeritus with Mumbai’s International Institute for Population Sciences. “The biggest is going to be providing employment to the millions and millions coming up that aren’t skilled or qualified or (don’t) have access to education.”
Large families often have the fewest resources. “India’s remaining population predicament is the same as in the rest of the developing world: Population growth remains stubbornly high in the poorest countries and, within countries, in the poorest areas, helping to keep them poor,” said O.P. Sharma, New Delhi-based consultant with Washington’s Population Reference Bureau, a civic group.
Even as headlines tout India’s space program, glitzy call centers, fast-growing economy and rising middle class, the nation is struggling to feed, clothe and house many of its people amid the population growth, corruption, inefficiency and weak government.
A report released recently found that the poor in India were better fed 30 years ago, and that India is worse off than its neighbors and many sub-Saharan African countries. The picture is similar in health, hygiene, education and women’s status.
Educating and otherwise raising women’s stature is a key to curbing runaway population growth, development workers say, yet India came in 113th of 135 countries on women’s status, according to a ranking by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
If anything, rising wealth has reduced women’s stature, sociologists say, because the cost of dowries has skyrocketed, leading to more female infanticide and abortions after the sex of a fetus is determined.
Indians were shocked recently to find that hundreds of girls in eastern Maharashtra state had been named Nakushi, a word that means “unwanted” in the Marathi language. Maharashtra has some of the lowest girl-to-boy ratios in the country. In October, the state held a naming ceremony allowing the “unwanted” women to choose new names.
Jayashree, known as Nakushi until lately, said she got used to being labeled “unwanted” by her family and neighbors. “I accepted it,” she said. “It was just a normal thing.”
When Aastha was born at 5:05 a.m. in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital — officials had expected a birth shortly after midnight, but other candidates were stillborn or ended up being born later — the hospital was inundated not only with reporters but doctors, senior bureaucrats and politicians eager to share the limelight. In front of the cameras, the dignitaries made all sorts of promises: that the family would enjoy free rail tickets for life, free medicine and free education and that the baby’s father would receive a government job.
“They never fulfilled anything,” her mother said, in their combined living room and bedroom, barely large enough for a bed and chairs. “They raised our hopes to the sky, then dashed them.”
The one gift that was delivered was a $4,000 fund to be used for education once Aastha turns 18, and even that took months to chase down. A letter confirming the gift said that “the best way to reduce population is to educate the girl child.”
Aastha says she likes to draw, enjoys science and is thinking of becoming a doctor, or maybe a flight attendant. “Airplanes are so exciting,” she said. “I’ve never been in one, but I watch them in the sky. It’s so exciting when you see them.”
(Tanvi Sharma in the Los Angeles Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.)
©2011 the Los Angeles Times