What We’re Reading: QandA with Aprajita Sarcar

Stephen Pascoe and Aprajita Sarcar, 7 September 2021 – Jump to QandA

Last month, the Laureate Centre Reading Group read the work of Aprajita Sarcar, a New Delhi–based scholar of population history in post-independence India. She is in the process of converting her doctoral research into her first monograph and she shared two samples of her work with us: a chapter from her recently-completed PhD and the introduction to her book-in-the-making.

Sarcar’s work begins with a captivating description of how the slogan “Hum Do Hamare Do” (“we two, our two”) – first developed in the postwar decades as a family planning campaign to limit reproduction to two children per family – has retained a “cultural currency” in contemporary India. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the slogan was accompanied by the symbol of an inverted red triangle, a powerful “synecdoche for the nuclear family”. This fascinating artefact of cultural history is the point of entry to Sarcar’s central purpose in this book: to show how the postcolonial state created the “psycho-social conditions and built environments for the modern nuclear family to prosper”. The innovation of Sarcar’s approach to population history emerges clearly in this introductory chapter. While population control has long been understood by historians as a crucial element of modern statecraft, it has overwhelmingly been viewed in top-down, or centrifugal modes. In this work, we see things from the other side: how population control came to be widely accepted by Indian public and intimately embedded in postcolonial popular culture: what Sarcar dubs a “vernacular neo-Malthusianism”. Moreover, she pays attention to not only the targets but also the local agents of population management. Whereas the history of family planning in India has heretofore focused on elite actors – the Nehrus and the Gandhis making pronouncements for the nation from on high – she brings to life the previously anonymous officials working in the middle-rung bureaucracies (sarkari daftars). These “mid-to-lower-level bureaucrats,” writes Sarcar, “translated the logic, need and rationale for a planned family for the Indian populace”.

In Chapter 1, Sarcar provides a fascinating account of the role of family planning centres in the Indian capital in counselling new couples, as the postcolonial Indian state attempted to limit population growth. As Sarcar demonstrates compellingly, overpopulation was understood by state officials as the primary social problem in 1950s India, from which all other problems (such as malnourishment, overcrowded housing, and illiteracy) emanated. Recent improvements in income and health meant that Indian citizens were living longer; however, the associated problems of unchecked population growth, it was feared, would erode these gains in standards of living. Hence the enthusiasm for neo-Malthusianism as a nation-building project of first-order priority.

Methodologically, this work makes splendid use of previously underutilised archives of differing scale: from local municipal archives to those of transnational organisations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. This allows Sarcar to slide between scales of analysis and bring “the local and the global” into meaningful conversation: a task to which lip service is so often paid, but which is rarely achieved satisfactorily. The result is a richly textured social and cultural history of population which demonstrates how the work of population control seeped into the popular culture of post-Independence India.

Q. and A. with Stephen Pascoe:

In your analysis of the urban geography of postcolonial Delhi, you argue that “differing moral economies of governance” were applied across three distinctive spatialities: (1) New Delhi, “the privileged child of empire”, imagined as populated by model middle-class nuclear families; (2) Old Delhi, “the illegitimate older sibling”, inhabited by poorer, predominantly Muslim residents who were disproportionately targeted for sterilisation programs; and (3) the peri-urban zone of “urbanizing villages” which were seen as ripe for developmentalist intervention.

I am curious to know more about the intersection of class and religious identity. You write that middle-class Indians most enthusiastically embraced targeted sterilizations of lower-class peoples. How did this class attitude intersect with religious community, especially among minority communities? For instance, what of middle-class Muslims? Was there are sense of loyalty to one’s sect trumping enthusiasm for population control?

Before responding to the question, I would like to clarify my use of the terms ‘family planning’ and population control. I see family planning as an individual family’s decision to space births, use contraceptives and consciously curtail family size. Population control, on the other hand, is the state advocacy measures that include incentives for contraception and sterilizations. In the early decades of the 1950s-60s, I believe there is sufficient archival evidence to show that people were enthusiastic about family planning. They understood the postcolonial state’s attempts to link family size to economic productivity of the nation. This linkage was secular and I found no resistance on religious lines in the archival material I unearthed. For instance, an article from December 1967 showed the Shahi Imam from Jama Masjid (a prominent Muslim cleric) spoke to a large male audience to encourage them to use contraceptives.

But by the late 1960s, I see an ambiguity creep in, as to how individuals accessed contraceptives. Again, it is important to mention that people were doubtful about the efficacy of the various contraceptives available, and not about the need for population control. In the early years of the 1970s, there were drastic shifts in the way large families were linked to specific communities. Scholars have shown how transnational funders, who wanted to see a major dip in birth rates, may have pushed the national programmes towards harsher measures of population control around this time. This rushed advocacy pushed for long-term sterilizations as a poverty removal measure. In this frenzy to curtail birth rates, we see the first discussions on high Muslim fertility. A similar line of editorials and commentaries in newspapers linked large families to subaltern populations. In fact, I believe even in the discussions about saffron demography today, we see large families as symptoms of poverty and illiteracy, as if reducing family size would automatically and immediately translate to capital gains for the community. So now we have a situation wherein upper caste Hindu nuclear families see themselves as ideal citizens and blame high fertility on communities who do not share their historical location.

In our reading group discussion, there was an interesting conversation on how best to understand Malthusianism in twentieth century India, and how bureaucrats absorbed and promoted what you call “vernacular neo-Malthusianism”. Could you expand on that here? How do “Malthusian” ideas get translated from Malthus’ writings to a framework of government policy?

This response will be a slightly disappointing as I am still thinking through this discussion. Through scholarship on birth control debates in late colonial India, we know that a section of elite Indians were reading Malthus. Annie Besant was based in India. Her advocacy for contraception did not wither away when she started supporting Indian voices for self rule. She brought those conversations with her to the independence movement. Educated, upper class Indian intelligentsia invited Margaret Sanger and other birth control advocates to speak to political leaders in the country. However, the lines of influence get murkier in the post-Independence scenario. We have a national bureaucracy welded to the idea that birth rates need to be curtailed in order for the national income to go up. Were the middle and lower-rung bureaucrats aware that this logic came from a text written in 1798? I don’t think so. However, the fact that a link existed cannot be denied. I am therefore proposing that Malthusian ideas of population growth, of linking fertility to material prosperity, became vernacularized. These ideas were translated in different contexts and reached the postcolonial political geography in India in ways Malthus may or may not have imagined. Studying the municipal or city-level governance of family planning advocacy in Delhi from 1950s to 70s helps me unearth this localized interpretation of Malthusian ideas.

You also mentioned in our discussion that “age” is controversial as a category in census-taking in India. Could you explain why?

There has been some work on the early enumeration practices for censuses. Sumit Guha has shown that census taking as a modern state practice borrowed from earlier traditions of documenting age, occupation and family histories. The process of documentation was more complex than a simple teleological affair. Ishita Pande in her work on child marriages in colonial India shows how contentious age as a category was to determine consensual sex or even forced marriages of young girls. Social technologies like the census, or a law to curb child marriages depend on the biological grounds of the ‘correct’ age of a person, as against a fluid concept with astrological determinants. This friction between a modern concept of age and a more translucent one which relies on social roles (or planetary positions) made census taking a contentious act.

Read More: Aprajita Sarcar on population policy imagery in post-Independence India

Food Security

Food and Freedom: A New World of Plenty?

In 1943, agriculturalists, economists, physicians, and international policy-makers met in Hot Springs, Virginia, a gathering that pre-empted what was to become the first agency of the new United Nations: the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The sinister backdrop was devastating famine in Bengal, in parts of China, and millions hungry in the USSR. A world food crisis was declared, and food and population were immediately linked in grand plans for the postwar era. This manifested as national politics as much as international politics over the turbulent late 1940s.

As the British withdrew from the subcontinent, independent governments in India, Pakistan, and Ceylon put food, population, and agricultural reform at the center of economic and political planning. In civil war China, “Anti-Hunger” became one political rallying point. In Japan, the occupying US forces as well as the new Japanese government puzzled over demographic projections for the country in relation to food production: was a transition to low birth rates and low mortality rates already taking place? And if so, how much food would be needed?

Land, Men and Food: Density in the Cold War. From Kingsley Davis, ‘People and Agriculture’ in Kingsley Davis and Julius Isaac, People on the Move (London: Bureau of Current Affair, 1950). The author of demographic transition was at least as interested in density as fertility rates.

As the World War turned into the Cold War, Europe too was gripped by a postwar food crisis, its solution seen by many to be the core imperative of political and social recovery. John Boyd Orr, Director-General of the new FAO, wrote about his experiences in Prague, Autumn 1946. He reported bad harvests reducing diet to starvation levels, hunger and discontent contributing to the downfall of the government. Meanwhile, the Greek government had just requested the FAO to assist in reconstruction and development, specifically to address the “impoverishment of land” where forests, it was claimed, had been reduced from 60 per cent to 5 per cent of the total area. Like many others, Boyd Orr was watching communist and anti-communist dynamics in Europe very carefully indeed. This was part of his new brief, not least since US initiatives for food aid were quickly escalating with the Marshall Plan, later extending into its Food for Peace program.

Food policy increasingly accompanied US bids for simultaneous world peace and global domination, key to its pursuit of a stable non-communist world future. Actual famine, and fear of the political ramifications of threatened famine, drove vast amounts of research, laboratory, and field development of agricultural sciences. New high-yielding varieties of wheat, maize, and rice, irrigation systems, pesticides, and herbicides became the “green revolution,” a descriptor first used in 1968, but nominating technological developments in place from the 1940s. In Mexico, India, the Philippines and beyond, investments by national governments, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the new World Bank manifested as a doubling of cereal production.

“What could be produced from the earth, and was it enough?”

For the hungry, this was about food, while for statesmen it was about food security, the political stability that food both brought and bought. For ecologists and Malthusians, it was unsustainable. Behind the food problem and its accompanying anti-communist politics, was major discussion about global resources and energy needs. What could be produced from the earth, and was it enough?

Food and hunger were also rendered global problems by those whose politics was opposed to the US-led anti-Communism, and in ways that recognized a recent colonial and anti-colonial past as much as the communist and anti-communist present. In other words, while global food, hunger, and population were key elements in the discourse of anti-communism, they were key elements also to postwar anti-colonialism. Brazilian doctor, anti-Malthusian, and sometime chair of the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Executive Council, Josué de Castro argued that the “geography of hunger” matched the global geography of colonial rule.

Yet concern over a lingering colonial geopolitics of hunger was not aligned solely with de Castro-style opposition to Malthusianism. Demographer Sripati Chandrasekhar agreed that “the world’s great areas of endemic hunger are exactly the colonial areas.” Deeply driven by Malthusian conviction, this was also part of his postcolonial critique: “The myth of Western military and social invulnerability has been exploded and the day of Western domination is over.” Thus the geopolitics of a “free world,” a communist world, and a “Third World” that did not have enough to eat, emerged not just as a US-led neo-colonialism but also as a critical geography of the global north and south. The capacity to achieve “freedom from hunger” was related to global calculations of food production, consumption, and distribution, but also more surprisingly it was tied to calls for “freedom to move,” rehearsing interwar conversations for the next new world.

Excerpt from Alison Bashford, Global Population (Columbia University Press, 2016), chapter 10.