Union health and family welfare minister Ghulam Nabi Azad kicked up a storm this month when he suggested late marriages and electrification of villages as possible solutions to the problem of population growth. Azad said the former would lower fertility levels among couples and the latter would get people to watch more late-night television and thereby keep away from procreation. Critics accused him of treading on the personal and cultural sensitivities of people and trivializing a complex problem. But does he?
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Conventional approaches to population control have focused on creating awareness and family planning measures. However, a substantial body of recent research points to alternative interventions that augment existing policies. Since effective policymaking demands choosing from a bouquet of individual programme components— about which there is often no prior field information—it is important that policymakers draw on such research to make more informed choices, to better target scarce social sector spending.
An August 2008 study by Premchand Dommaraju for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on the relationship between marriage age, initiation of childbearing and transitions to higher order births concludes that “efforts to promote late marriage could lead to a reduction in fertility and improve child and maternal health”. It says “women marrying late have a shorter first birth interval than women marrying at a younger age” and “second and higher birth intervals are longer among those marrying late compared with those marrying early”.
Empirical evidence gathered from a comparison of the average marriage age (AMA) from across the world appears to validate this finding. AMA in developed countries is between 25 years and 30 years, and well above 20 for most developing nations. At 19.3 years, India has one of the lowest AMAs for women; only Chad, Mozambique, Niger, Nepal and Bangladesh have lower AMA.
The penetration of private cable and satellite television channels, and especially family soap operas, in many developing countries in recent years has had considerable impact on individual habits and behaviour, especially among women. These soaps depict urban environments where families are smaller, and where women work, control money and have higher levels of education—evoking similar aspirations among rural audiences. Two research papers examined this with very interesting conclusions.
Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea examined the impact of soap operas in Brazil on fertility trends and found striking positive trends. They used census data for the period 1970-91 and the presence of signals of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on soaps, and found that “women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility”. They also found that the effect is strongest for women of lower socio-economic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle.
A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper by Emily Oster and Robert Jensen examined the impact of cable television in rural India, especially family soaps such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, and found decreases in fertility, primarily through increased birth spacing. They used a three-year individual-level panel data set and also found significant improvements in women’s status by way of decreases in the reported “acceptability” of wife beating, reduction in reported preferences for sons over daughters and increases in female school enrolment.
All the three studies base their conclusions on carefully selected random samples, and control for the various other possible causative factors, to establish the required causal relationship. Their findings lend ample support to government policies that promote late marriages by providing incentives such as tax concessions for children’s education, encouraging tertiary education for women, and so on. Even the much derided populist promises of some political parties to provide television sets and cable connections may not, after all, be as bad as originally thought.
The debate over Azad’s statement also highlights the utility of such studies in professionally designing policies on the myriad social challenges confronting us. Recent research from across the world, especially using statistical and experimental techniques such as randomized control trials—which seek to measure the impact of certain treatments on a randomly allocated subject group—provides invaluable insights into the efficacy of various policy interventions.
Such experimental techniques give important insights into the sequencing and contextual requirements for the success of specific interventions.
Studies—one such by Ted Miguel and Michael Kremer—have shown that under certain conditions, it is cheaper and more effective in Kenya to increase school enrolment through treatment of children for intestinal worms than by hiring an additional teacher. Similarly, charging for deworming drugs and mosquito nets in Kenya dramatically lowered the usage of both; daily photographing of teachers with students in Rajasthan schools increased teacher attendance; and screening of violent films during nights voluntarily incapacitated violence-prone youth in US cities by keeping them off the streets and in theatres.
Such techniques were employed to design the hugely successful conditional cash transfer schemes across Latin America. Ongoing government programmes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the National Rural Health Mission can be more effectively tailored to meet their social objectives by drawing on the findings of such experiments.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org