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International Socialism, Mid-December 1973


Tom Butler

The Myth of Population Control


From International Socialism (1st series), No.65, Mid-December 1973, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Myth of Population Control: Family, Caste and Class in an Indian Village
Mahmood Mamdani
Monthly Review Press, £3.15.

THIS BOOK is about the first major field study of birth control in India. It was set in Khanna in the Punjab and it failed, at a cost of one million dollars to the Rockefeller foundation and the Indian government. Mamdani criticises the ‘population problem’ theorists and their assumptions about economic growth, particularly the rural population growth of the third world. Between 1954 and 1969 the Khanna study attempted to find ways of controlling the rural population and to measure the effects of family planning in terms of birth and death rates. The final aim of the study was to see what effect population control had on the health and social status of the rural population.

The basic assumption which runs through the book is that people are not poor because they have large families, quite the contrary; they have large families because they are poor. In effect, the Khanna study could not aid development but hinder it, because the old and infirm are dependent on their children. Thus, to reduce the population would mean economic disaster. Mamdani illustrates this assumption in two separate ways; firstly with a criticism of the empiricist method used in the study and the ways in which the books were cooked to fit reality into the framework of the research. Secondly he describes the particular circumstances of individual members of the village and their ‘attitudes’ which he categorises in terms of occupation – this he terms ‘social class’.

Mamdani’s notions on the possibilities for economic development are confused. He tries to demonstrate that there is a split between the urban and rural worker – but at the same time points to the fact that many young workers migrate to the towns and keep their families as rural dependants. Yet he fails to follow the logic of this position through when he says that the solution to the problem of underdevelopment is the mechanisation of agriculture rather than intensive industrial development.

But, if the land is bad, or limited, or both, the peasant cannot create a surplus. Therefore he cannot save, there is no capital created, there is no accumulation of capital to put back into improving the land, so production is limited and the vicious circle continues. So, the question of development and of improving the conditions of the mass of the Indian population, the rural peasants, is limited to a question of the technical means of development and not to the central problem of the politics of maldistribution in a world that is already rich. The problem is seen in abstraction from the world market system which chokes it and is posed as one of technology, not of class. The concrete solution, according to Mamdani, is to ‘educate’ the peasants – this is the same solution the Khanna study group adopted when they realised that their research had failed.

Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect is the one that is not criticised, ie the attempt to generalise from 8000 individual peasants to the 460 millions living in the Indian subcontinent. This book is interesting as a guide on how not to do research, but it has serious limitations – at £3.15 for 165 pages, there are better ways of spending your money.

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