“When Are You Giving the Good News?” The Question Responsible for India’s Overpopulation

Social Commentary

“When Are You Giving the Good News?” The Question Responsible for India’s Overpopulation

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

My house help took a sudden chutti yesterday, and when she returned today she told me the reason: She’d delivered a baby, not her own of course, that of her neighbour’s. She spoke about it as if it could happen to anyone – this delivery in the middle of the downpour, under a tin-shed roof with tarpaulin. It was the neighbour’s fourth, she told me, shrugging her shoulders. Her neighbour is also a maid, who makes about ₹12,000 a month like she does.

This is not the first time didi has nonchalantly announced the arrival of a human, but listening to stories of newborns as a bachelor was a completely different ballgame. As a recently married man, whose married friends are already having kids, this struck much closer home. As I recovered from a hangover in a bar where I had swiped for ₹5,000 in one night, I tried to wrap my head around how someone who earns ₹12,000 a month manages to feed four people. Of course I drew a blank as always.

But part of me wondered if the famous Indian question, “Good news kab de rahe ho?” is what led this young mother of four down this road of destructive reproduction.

“Good news kab de rahe ho?” is the question that everyone – including perfect strangers on a Rajdhani Express – begins to ask seconds after you get married. Elders in the building, odd uncles and aunts you’ve never met, even the watchman… everyone wants to know. They attack you together, they target you separately, they say it coyly, they imply it, they slip it in slyly. They don’t leave any occasion to nag you. The conversation is not considered awkward or it is not looked at as an invasion of privacy in any way, because making babies is not considered a choice to be made by the couple.

As much as you want to stuff cotton in all those questioning mouths, you can’t blame them. In our country, having a baby is considered a rite of passage, not a matter of choice. It’s like going through the motions. Marrying and producing kids is as obvious as going to a hotel, ordering, eating, paying, and leaving. Life is an Udipi, not a Starbucks, where that routine can be broken, where not ordering is an option, where maybe you just wanted to hang out.

Despite growing up with Hum Do Hamare Do, this generation gave us another generation bigger than the first.

In millennial India, a couple can still think of shrugging off the khush khabari question, turn it into a joke targeted right back at the nosy aunty, but her tribe is stronger and larger than you think. You can only be funny for so long, because one day the jokes go away and the warnings begin to haunt you – the biological clock, the generational age gaps (“When your son graduates, you will be an old man, beta!”) which is then followed by advice: “There is no such thing as the right time, beta. When we had you, we had 12 rupees in our bank account.” If one day, you muster up all your latent courage and tell them you don’t want to have kids, they will recede into a shocked silence and ask you in a genuinely bewildered tone, “Toh shaadi kyun ki?”  

It’s no wonder then that we are where we are on this World Population Day: So that one day we can kick the ass of every other nation when it comes to people per sq km of land.  Don’t worry about China, we are expected to overtake their numbers in the next six years or so: WhatsApp has confirmed this, so it must be true. “And this, despite the fact that our country has one of the oldest family-planning programmes in the world, dating back to 1951,” reports the Indian Express. Despite growing up with Hum Do Hamare Do, this generation gave us another generation bigger than the first.

The programme hasn’t really worked. Or maybe it has, who knows we might have been at 1,50,00,00,00,000 by now. No government has been blind to our population problem; they’ve tackled it in their own way. Sanjay Gandhi took a shot at controlling it but that backfired. Riots and lynchings and travelling on the local seem to be another way, but the difference made is miniscule, given that we give “good news” 2.6 crore times every year. In the year 2000, the government set up a 100-member National Population Commission. 100 members. In a commission that discusses population control. This is irony having an orgasm.

But how has it come to be that in spite of mountains of evidence that overpopulation is killing our chances at a normal life, we still can’t stop ourselves from frantically reproducing?   

Well the answer is, because we aren’t really allowed to not reproduce. While couples in urban India might be allowed to at least toy with the idea, go a little off our sleek highways – and I mean Goregaon – the scene changes. The men refuse to stop because, well, patriarchy. What will become of the family name? This vain hope that the next generation shall take the family name to its deserved and desired glory, is baffling. Maybe we hope our kids will invent the cure of some rare disease, at least in an administrative capacity.

And there is the “demographic dividend” economic argument for procreation – more hands on deck for working harder and taking the country to newer heights. Hiring contractual labour is tougher than putting your life through labour, but this demographic dividend theory has been thrown around as an excuse to have kids for too long and has been debunked too. It has finally been proven that more hands on deck doesn’t really mean a better deck. The numbers tell the story: 17 million people are entering the workforce every year, but only 5.5 million jobs are being created. With 65 per cent of Indians aged under 35, the country can ill-afford more good news.

With social fault lines deepening – around religion and caste – unemployed youth can only find more reasons to use violence to vent their frustration. In a 2011 report, a US-based development agency, Mercy Corps, pointed out that 48 per cent of Kashmir’s youth were unemployed. In a report by the Times of India, a senior police officer pointed out that lack of employment opportunities drove many a youth toward unlawful activities. The recent hype around cow protection and the rise in lynchings is a glaring proof of this anger. In 2016, the Maharashtra animal husbandry department received more than 2,000 applications, many from those linked to Hindutva groups, to serve as “eyes to monitor the beef ban”.

Maybe it’s time we accept the fact that more people doesn’t mean more output. Theoretically, that might be the case, but the on-ground reality is different. And that is no khush khabari. It’s time to stop asking each other this question already.