Mythical Families: the Small Family Norm and Everyday Governance of Population in India, 1954-1977

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Sarcar, Aprajita
Population Control , Postocolonialism , South Asia , Family Planning , Sterilizations , Nuclear Families , Urban History , Modernization , India
In the first two decades of decolonization in India, the slogan ‘Hum Do Hamare Do’ (we two, our two) and its associated symbol ‘red triangle’ became synonymous with the nuclear family. This project traces the creation and circulation of this campaign in the postcolonial era of 1954-77. People remembered the first decades of modernity through this mythical small and happy family. India was one of the first Asian countries to embark on a national population control programme in 1951. It embarked on non-aligned economic development with a firm belief in Malthusianism — the belief that unchecked population growth will outstrip the growth of resources leading to scarcity of and overcrowding. I argue that the resulting attempts at population control conjured up a family that existed only in the bureaucrat’s policy document, and ‘trickled-down’ to the masses. The notional small family ultimately extended beyond the bureaucrat’s policy papers. Through propaganda campaigns, counselling centers, demographic studies and urban architecture, this bureaucratic ideal of the small family was transmitted through to the masses. The counselling centers and the advocacy campaigns of the period not only focused on the medical aspects of human fertility, but also linked the very question of fertility to the socio-economic development of the recently decolonized nation. Common people responded to Malthusianism through attempts to reduce family size, but their choices were not commensurable with the state’s desires. While people were accepting the symbol and its meaning slowly, the state encouraged contraception and eventually sterilizations, through the offer of monetary incentives or by coercive means. The statist push towards contraceptives must be understood as a response to the transnational context of the population programme, set within the power bloc politics of the Cold War. As family planning emerged as the central feature of governmental efforts to modernize the country, people were confronted with contradictory meanings of modernity. This project will trace the history of population control as it unfolded between the state’s five year plans and the people’s own desire for smaller families, through a focus on the inverted red triangle and its popularity during this era.
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