Essay on the Population Policy of India during the British Rule


The British rulers of the country were not interested in formulating any population policy for India, nor were they in favour of the birth control movement, which had started making its presence felt.

As pointed out by Chandrasekhar: ‘Till the early twenties the British measured the prosperity of their rule, to some extent, by the magnitude of the net addition to India’s population.

The degree of satisfaction over and the justification of the British rule in India were directly in proportion to the substantial increase in the population that the census revealed every decade.”


The absence of support from the British rulers to the birth control movement was firstly, because in their own homeland the birth control issue was itself controversial and secondly, because the general policy of the British was to keep away from any measures which would be considered by the Indians as an intrusion on their own traditions, customs, values and beliefs.

A section of the intellectual elite among the Indians showed some concern about the population issue during the period between the two World Wars, despite the fact that the pre-occupation of the general population was primarily with the independence movement.

Initially, the cause of concern was the density of population rather than the rate of growth, for high rates of mortality as well as of fertility did not result in alarmingly high growth rates.

The 1931 census indicated that the intercensal increase was much higher than that during the earlier decade; and there was much difference of opinion regarding whether or not India was over-populated.


The Neo-Malthusians were of the opinion that a smaller population would mean better living conditions for the masses. Following Malthus, they argued that any further gains in the economic conditions of the country would be wiped out if the population continued to grow rapidly.

They advocated the need for a population policy to spread the practice of birth control among the people.

Several important developments took place between 1916 and the attainment of independence in 1947. In 1916, Pyare Kishen Wattal published his book, The Population Problem in India, in which he advocated family planning.

In 1925, Raghunath Dhondo Karve, a professor of Mathematics in a college run by Christian missionaries, opened the first birth control centre in Bombay and laced dismissal at the hands of his orthodox employers.


In the same year, Rabindranath Tagore wrote to Margaret Sanger: “I am of the opinion that the birth control movement is a great movement not only because it will save women from enforced and undesirable maternity.

But also because it will help the cause of peace by lessening the number of surplus population of a country, scrambling for food and space outside its own rightful limits.

In a hunger- stricken country like India, it is a cruel crime thoughtlessly to bring more children into existence than can properly be taken care of, causing endless suffering to them and imposing a degrading condition upon the whole family.”

On June 11, 1930, the Government of Mysore, a progressive native State, opened the first Government Birth Control Clinic in the world. In 1931, the Senate of the Madras University accepted the proposal to impart instruction in methods of conception control.


The following year, the Government of Madras agreed to open birth control clinics in the Presidency. Support for birth control by the intellectual elite was once again evident when, in 1932, the All- India Women’s Conference at Lucknow recommended that men and women should be instructed in methods of birth control in recognised clinics.

In 1935, the Indian National Congress set up a National Planning committee under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru. As the recommendations of this committee are of historic importance, they are quoted here in full:

“(1) We agree with the view that the size of the Indian population is a basic issue in national economic planning, in so far as its unrestricted increase of proportion to means of subsistence, affects adversely the standard of living, and tends to defeat many social and ameliorative measures.

The problem has been fundamentally caused by the lack of all-round coordinated economic development. While measures for the improvement of the quality of the population and limiting excessive population pressure are necessary, the basic solution of the present disparity between population and standard of living lies in the economic progress of the country on a comprehensive and planned basis.


“(2) In the interest of social economy, family happiness and national planning, family planning and limitation of children are essential; and the state should adopt a policy to encourage these.

It is desirable to lay stress on self control as well as to spread knowledge of cheap and safe methods of birth control. Birth control clinics should be established and other necessary measures taken in this behalf to prevent the use or advertisement of harmful methods.

“(3) We consider that a gradual raising of the marriage age and discouragement of polygamy are desirable in the interests of the limitation of the size of the family.

“(4) An eugenic programme should include the sterilisation of persons suffering from transmissible diseases of a serious nature, such as insanity or epilepsy.

“(5) The maintenance of vital statistics and the carrying out of periodic demographic surveys on comprehensive lines are necessary; and appropriate machinery should be devised for the purpose.”

On December 1, 1935, the Society for the Study and Promotion of Family Hygiene was founded with Lady Cowasji Jehangir as its first president. Training courses in birth control were conducted by Dr. A.P. Pillai, a vigorous advocate of family planning.

In 1939, the “Birth Control World-Wide” in Uttar Pradesh and the Matru Seva Sangh in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, established birth control clinics. In 1940, P.N. Sapru successfully moved a resolution in the Council of States for the establishment of birth control clinics.

Around the same time, Shrimati Renu Datta toured the country extensively with the objective of organising birth control campaigns on behalf of the Family Planning Association of London.

By 1940, the Society for the Study and Promotion of Family Hygiene had changed its name to the Family Planning Society, incorporating the Birth Control Clinic of the Bhagini Samaj in Bombay.

In the midst of all this support for population control and family planning, a different note was sounded by the Famine Enquiry Commission of 1943, called the Wood head Commission, which stated: “At the present time, a deliberate state policy with the objective of encouraging the practice of birth control among the mass of the population is impracticable. A fall in birth rate will tend to follow rather than precede economic development.” 4

Once again, support for birth control was evident when the Health Survey and Development Committee set up by the Government of India in 1945, under the Chairmanship of Sir Joseph Bhore, recommended that birth control services should be provided for the promotion of the health of mothers and children.

The impact of Gandhiji’s view on birth control also need to be taken into account because he exercised a strong influence over the Indian masses, not only in the political field but in all areas of human life.

Though Gandhiji accepted the need for birth control, it was advocated on ethical and moral grounds, for he maintained that that would improve the moral fibre and the physical health of the individual.

On the same ethical and moral grounds, he was against any artificial means of contraception; but he lent his full support to bramacharya or abstinence. He declared: “There can be no two opinions about the necessity of birth control.

But the only method handed down from ages past is self-control or bramacharya. It is an infallible sovereign remedy doing well to those who practice it.

The union is meant not for pleasure but for bringing forth progeny.” He, however, conceded that another method, which had an appeal for him, was the rhythm method, which was based on avoidance of sexual union during “unsafe” periods, that is, when conception was most likely to occur. Gandhiji’s views on whether or not India was over-populated are also worth noting.

He wrote: “If all laboured for their bread and no more, then there would be enough food and leisure for all and there would be no cry of over­population, any disease, and misery we see around.”

His strong views on the enslavement of Indians by the British also made him advise his people: “It is our duty at the present movement to suspend bringing forth heirs to our slavery.” 7

Another group, which worked against the birth control movement in India, was composed of those national leaders who believed that all the problems of India were caused by foreign domination and, therefore, they could not possibly blame the Indian people for prolific child-bearing.

It is clear that, prior to independence, the controversial issue of birth control concerned only a handful of intellectuals while the actual practice of birth control was restricted to the westernized minority in the cities.

The pressure from the intellectuals that Government formulate a policy for disseminating information on birth control and for encouraging its practice was, however, mounting.

As Gunnar Myrdal puts it: “The intellectual groundwork had been laid when the colonial era came to an end; a rational policy could be pursued in the era of independence.”

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