Lhakpa Doma Salaka-Pinasa Sherpa and Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Family planning in Nepal: a field example for urgency
In: C.-A. Seyschab, A. Sievers and S. Szynkiewicz (eds.), Frontiers, Boundaries, Limits: Their Notions and their Experiences in East Asia, pp. 131-138. Unkel, Bad Honnef: Horlemann 1992.The right or better the duty to measures of population control has to be encountered into the list of human rights. If you take the example of the small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal the annual population growth rate is still at 2.6%, one of the highest rates in Asia. Drastic steps towards a reduction of this rate were neither taken by the former Panchayat governments, that reigned Nepal for almost 30 years, nor by the party politicians of the interim government, which was in power from April 1990 to May 1991. Even the new Nepali Congress government of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, that was brought to power by the first free and democratic parliamentary elections for 32 years, which were held on 12 May 1991, so far did not announce any corresponding measures, even though they should stand in the first line. The internationally recognized human right on food and labour as well as the right to live in an environment fit for human habitation cannot be realized in Nepal, if the population explosion is not stopped immediately and in a solid way.
If one can give credence to the newest Nepalese statistics, the total population of Nepal will cross 20 million during these days. On 11 July 1991, the world population day, Nepal's total population was 19,917,758 persons as reported by the Rising Nepal, the country's most sold English daily. According to the National Planning Commission Nepal's population is growing at the rate of one every 54 seconds, 66 every hour, 1,290 every day, and 470,000 every year.
During our recent journey to Nepal we have had a critical look at this problem in regard to Lhakpa's own ethnic group, the Sherpas. Especially within the younger generation a clear willingness to family planning is visible, but what is lacking is a specific and country-wide organization by the state. Unfortunately even the recent royal address on the politics of the new government, given at a joint session of both houses of parliament on 1 July did not mention the necessity of planned methods of population control.
How much the situation has deteriorated during the last thirty years may be seen from the tables showing the population figures of Lhakpa's home village in Solukhumbu, a mountain district in northeastern Nepal. Table 1 shows the number of households as well as the respective number of children at about the year 1960. Here the mentioned heads of the families belong to the generation of Lhakpa's grandparents. Table 2 shows the current situation, i.e. our own generation or partly even the next one.
These tables clearly show, that the number of households has tripled during the past three decades. If one takes into consideration, that the arable land has remained more or less the same and cannot be extended for topographical reasons, while at the same time the quality of soil is constantly decreasing, it becomes clear what things are coming to. According to Sherpa tradition the family's land is parted among the sons of the following generation. Thirty years ago this on the average meant to the next generation a halving of the arable land belonging to a family. And this exactly corresponds to the number of houses (22) we found during a visit to the village in early 1977. According to the current figures there will be another division of the arable land into three for the generation to come.
But the tables also show, that the number of surviving children, and only these are to be found in these statistics, has clearly increased. While in 1960 only 4.5 children survived the age of childhood, the respective figure today ist about 6.5 children, which is an average increase of 2 children per family. If one takes into consideration that the current table also contains a number of young households, whose number of children may increase immensely, one reaches the conclusion, that the number of children per household has almost doubled during the past thirty years.
Trenchant steps are necessary, if the foreseeable disaster shall still be averted. We found that the youth of today is more conscious of this problem than the members of our own generation. This may be connected with the greater degree of education, that also has come to this village now. Still in 1977 there was not even a school in the village and the few children, which were sent to school, had to walk about two hours everyday to reach the school on the opposite mountain slope. This situation had improved in 1982, when there was a small school building without any equipment for the first three classes, and the parents - and this was now predominantly our own generation, which himself had not got any kind of school education - more and more sent their children to this school. The city (Kathmandu), which for our generation was still far away and thus was visited only from time to time, has now come nearer a lot not least because of the new road, that has been built from Lamosanghu to Jiri. Today many young people don't see any prospects in the mountains. So they leave their village and live in the city hoping to find uncertain jobs at trekking agencies. Some of those we met in May during our last visit to Kathmandu had already lived there for years and maintained only loose contacts to their home village. These were mostly the ones who had been able to build up a new life for themselves in the city. But others, and they are the majority, struggle through life after a fashion. On the one hand they don't want to miss the comforts of city life they have learnt to know, on the other hand they are also dissatisfied, since their prospects are bad in the city, too. Having only minor education in comparison to the population of the city and being members of a Buddhist ethnic group they have hardly any chance in the competition for the few lucrative jobs. This is the group of younger people who are drawn home to their village from time to time, often because of economic reasons. But they don't hold out there for long and soon return to the city. So their life is characterized by a continuous back and forth migration between village and city.
Many of the young people we talked to in Kathmandu are already married and have their own families in the mountains. Unlike their parents' generation they are fully aware of the consequences of unmethodical reproduction for their own fate and that of their children. With enthusiasm they participated in our talks about possible methods of family planning. And we realized the enormous potential for succesful politics of population control, that was inherited in these young people. Many of them spontaneously agreed to go to their village and to talk to the people there and explane them the aim and object of family planning. This method would have the great advantage, that they are not strange members of possibly other ethnic groups but well-known members of the own village community. They agreed to set a good example and practise one or other common family planning methods by themselves to animate other villagers for these methods.
So we tried to equip some of these young people, who agreed, with contraceptives and to send them as a test to their villages. Yet we were confronted with problems, that led us to doubt that the Nepalese government so far has undertaken any concrete steps to promote family planning. If for example even in Kathmandu's renowned chemist's shops condoms are only stored on the lowest shelves behind the counter, where nobody can see them, and besides this only in a small amount, and if you only meet astonishment, if you order 1.000 pieces for distribution among the multipliers, and you get only 100 pieces after some days, then it becomes clear, that family planning methods cannot have any chance in Nepal.
Here the Nepalese state is challenged. A specific public relations work is needed on a national level. It's not enough to bring sketches on the radio or in newspapers. One must go to the people directly. And it is a prerogative, that the needed contraceptives are always available in sufficient amount. Compared to Europe they are rather cheap today, but for most Nepali they are still too expensive. It should be considered, if contraceptives can be given free of charge to people, who are willing to practice population control methods. If in the newest budget one can put 48.5 million Rs. at the disposal of the royal family, of which after all 13.18% (c. 6.4 million Rs.) are taken from foreign aid (grants), then must there be also something left for family planning. But contraceptives free of charge should be made dependent from the engagement of the recipient. Proved family planning must be rewarded.
But also legal changes are necessary to reduce the population growth rate. The marriage of minors arranged by their parents is a common practice in Nepal. The earlier these children get children of their own the higher will be the number of children at the end of their child-bearing age. Here the Nepalese state has to intervene, if it wants to call herself a democratic state. This practice can no longer be treated as a trivial offence but must be made a punishable offence. Firstly should it not be allowed to marry children against their own will, since it is a fundamental right of every human being to decide upon this by her-/himself. Secondly must the marriageable age be raised; the marriage of persons below the age of 18 should only be allowed in exceptional cases. And the marrying age must be equal for boys and girls, since according to article 11 of the constitution there shall be no legal differences on grounds of sex. For many ethnic groups of Nepal, especially for the Hindu castes, such regulations of course would mean an intervention into their traditional practices. But under the current population situation the Nepalese government cannot show consideration for it, if the fundamental right of all Nepalese people to live in an environment fit for human habitation shall be safeguarded in the long term. But also the donor countries should put pressure on the Nepalese government to make population control a priority part of all development projects.
Postscript: This original text has been edited by the publisher.
Copyright © 1992, Lhakpa Doma Salaka-Binasa Sherpa and Karl-Heinz Kraemer