Housing the Poor for a Healthy Planet and Healthy Nation


In 1975, tired of its reputation for being a “soft state” blemished by charges of corruption, security threats, labor unrest, and uncontrolled poverty within a rapidly growing population, the Indian Government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. With the suspension of citizen’s democratic and institutional rights, Gandhi laid forth in a number of speeches a new, paternalistic vision for the Indian nation—one that claimed to act in the people’s best interests, even if it acted alone. For Gandhi, independence from colonial rule meant an “opportunity to do our duty.” This duty mirrored the message of the 1970 film Housing for the People, which depicted the creation of a modern India, complete with “neat homes, neat citizens.” Produced by the Films Division of India, the media arm under the Ministry for Broadcasting and Information, the film was one of the many documentaries that carried a message of postcolonial nation-building—the eradication of poverty, pollution, and overpopulation, and uplifting those who had remained, according to Gandhi, “oppressed for centuries”—through modernization. Population and poverty were intertwined and broadcast through Government media such as this, as was the Prime Minister’s slogan, “garibi hatao (“remove poverty”) that foregrounded population control as a prerequisite for social mobility and economic development.

The 1970s was also a time when Euro-American environmental consciousness focused on the threat of overpopulation. Popularized by publications such as Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, “overpopulation” and “population control” moved into the remit of state politics. Succumbing to racial and neo-Malthusian discourse that described much of the poverty-stricken third world a threat to “planetary” health with its “unsustainable” fertility rates, these environmental movements focused on the fragility of life on “Spaceship Earth” and its imminent prospects of resource scarcity and limited “carrying capacity.” The 1970 UN Conference on Human Survival, for instance, attended by architects like Buckminster Fuller, was one of many gatherings organized to “examine the human condition in a world which has become a single geographic community and in which the principal problems have to do with the survival of the human species itself,” and where the “problem of the environment” was identified to be compounded by the “population problem.”

From its origins in the 1950s, family planning in India was seen as crucial to the state modernization project, whose stated goals included poverty alleviation and economic growth. Guided by the sustained efforts of American and British birth control activists, the Ford Foundation, the United Nations advisory missions for demography, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the Rockefeller Foundation, and USAID, by the early 1970s Indian family planning efforts had provided a gamut of contraceptive services to over ninety million people in the reproductive age group.

Family planning was originally marketed and rolled out as a voluntary system—with mobile health and education services that travelled from village to village to preach an optimum family size and extensive mass media campaigns that flashed positive, easily understandable messages on contraception through the press, radio, television,…

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