When I was a young school kid (1960s and 1970s), we had a family in our neighborhood. The ‘head of the household’ was M. He worked as police constable. However, since he was physically rather unfit for actual police work, he was employed at the home of the Inspector of his station as a domestic help – taking the boss’s children to and from school, shop for vegetables and provisions, etc. On pay-day (1st working day of the month) was the only day we saw him in uniform – going to the station to collect his salary. Under the circumstances, he was never eligible for any merit-linked pay raises, bonuses etc. but only whatever increases may have happened automatically year to year – which was meager anyway. He was kept on the job partly on ‘compassionate grounds.’

On ‘compassionate grounds’, because he had a very large family. This was a tricky situation. Low income, low social standing, but large family consisting of girls – by the standards of those times, this was a dire situation. Each girl had to be eventually ‘married off’ properly (i.e., dowry, wedding expenses, etc.) for which he could not save, as the salary was not enough even to meet monthly expenses.

M’s wife (“maami” as we called her; a respectful Tamizh term meaning “aunty”) used to work in the kitchens of the neighborhood families to get some income to add to the family’s treasury. This, too, was not a whole lot.

I say all these to give you some idea of the domestic financial situation.

So, at one point, when she got admitted to the local government hospital for delivery of her 7th or 8th child, the doctor suggested that she undergo surgery so that she could stop having children. The doctor’s argument was purely economic – you are poor, why do you keep having children? Maami’s response was that she would not dream of doing such a thing; children were God’s gifts.

Here you see two viewpoints: children as divine gifts (Maami’s view), and children as financial burdens (the doctor’s view).

The Government of India has been trying to reduce the rate of growth of the population by trying to reduce the birth rate (i.e., number of children born per 1,000 population). For several decades, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a large campaign trying to convince people to have no more than two children, regardless of their gender.

Numbers and geography

How many children are being born? How many of them are male and how many are female? What is the age difference between a child and its immediate siblings? Who are the child’s parents? These are vital data that can tell us about the increases (or decreases) in the population.

These data also help us understand how many young persons are in our population. The crucial aspect also is to know the geography of these data – where are the children being born, what is the size of the existing population there, and so on.

Should there be more schools? More hospitals? What kind of medical services should be provided? How many girl and boy children are there in every area?  Many of these children will start seeking jobs when they reach a certain age – what kind of jobs can we educate them for?

Over time, in each area, what are the rates at which populations have increased or decreased? How has the proportion of males and females changed? These are just some of the questions that the census helps us answer to a large extent. Answering such questions require population data.

How do we find these numbers out? You probably have a birth certificate. Every birth certificate is a record of the live birth of a child. For many decades, parents never sought or got birth certificates. This was because parents didn’t understand the importance of having one, or the government didn’t insist on these certificates. In recent decades it has become more common for births to be recorded properly and officially.

How do we know how many children are going to school? Well, when you joined your school, you probably had to provide a copy of your birth certificate at some point. Now the school you attended has a record of your joining and leaving. At some point, those data get into the census process and we end up with an overall picture of the nation as a whole.

Before birth certificates became this common, admission to nursery or class 1 was based on whatever date the parents or guardians gave on the application form, or recorded in the school register. There was no way to verify if this was correct or not. I have known of many cases where this was the case. (In many of these cases, people had to get a certificate from the City Corporation saying that there was no birth certificate for that person – a no-certificate certificate!)

For your generation, the proof of your date of birth is the birth certificate. For people of a few earlier generations, the ‘proof’ was the Class 10 board exam  marks report which had our date of birth on it. Where did that date come from? Not necessarily the hospital! It was what parents/guardians had claimed – but not necessarily verified.

Next time, let us look at pyramids and their connection to populations.

Things you can do:

  1. You have seen two viewpoints – the doctor’s and Maami’s – about the number of children that Maami had. What is your opinion? You could organize a discussion in your geography class with your teacher to help moderate it.
  2. Find out some of the reasons for people opting to have more number of children or fewer children. You can make this also part of your discussion.
  3. Do you have a birth certificate? If yes, look at the details that are recorded in it. Examine how all the information there becomes geographic information.
  4. Construct a family tree for yourself. How many generations back can you trace your ancestry? For how many of these are you able to record the date of birth? If there are no birth certificates for some of the people in that tree, find out why not.
  5. In that family tree, observe how many children each couple in each generation had. Over the number of generations that you recorded, has the number of children per couple generally increased or decreased?

(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 25 September 2014.)


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