India Adopts Compulsory Birth Control Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Indian government attempted to address the country’s dangerously high rate of population growth through an authoritarian program that tolerated forced sterilization, the results included numerous violations of individuals’ human rights.

Summary of Event

In 1952, India became the first country to attempt to reduce its rate of population growth. The government believed that slowing population growth was necessary for India to be able to provide adequate food, shelter, and health care for its citizens, the majority of whom lived in extreme poverty. Although insufficient funding and bureaucratic caution produced a slow start, by 1961 the nation had approximately fifteen hundred family-planning clinics in operation, providing services largely free of charge. These clinics made a significant difference in the lives of many urban Indians who wished to limit their number of children, but they were unable to address the high birthrates common in rural areas. India;state of emergency (1975-1977) Population;control measures Birth control, compulsory Reproductive rights Sterilization, forced [kw]India Adopts Compulsory Birth Control (1976) [kw]Compulsory Birth Control, India Adopts (1976) [kw]Birth Control, India Adopts Compulsory (1976) India;state of emergency (1975-1977) Population;control measures Birth control, compulsory Reproductive rights Sterilization, forced [g]South Asia;1976: India Adopts Compulsory Birth Control[02230] [g]India;1976: India Adopts Compulsory Birth Control[02230] [c]Human rights;1976: India Adopts Compulsory Birth Control[02230] [c]Women’s issues;1976: India Adopts Compulsory Birth Control[02230] Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Sanjay

In 1963 and again in 1966, the Indian government enlisted the help of public and private international organizations in an effort to reorganize and expand its family-planning program. The Ministry of Health was re-created as the Ministry of Health, Family Planning, and Urban Development, which included, for the first time, a separate department responsible for family planning. Important national officials began, also for the first time, to support national population policy openly. Between 1967 and 1973, these efforts resulted in an expanded but ultimately unsuccessful population program. During this period, abortion was legalized, mass media were used extensively to spread the message of family planning, and compensation to men undergoing vasectomies was increased. As a result, sterilization—long recognized for its effectiveness, permanence, and relatively low cost as an important policy option—doubled in the first year and tripled by 1973.

Despite isolated successes, however, these new policies had little overall impact. Especially in rural areas, where the vast majority of India’s population lived, family-planning programs faced significant obstacles. Cultural traditions concerning family size, the low social status of women, high rates of illiteracy, unfounded fears of side effects from contraception, and the combination of poverty and high infant mortality that produced high birthrates (as insurance that some children would survive to care for parents in old age) all blocked more effective efforts. Thus, even though birthrates declined slightly between 1961 and 1971, a larger drop in death rates as a result of improved health conditions caused the population growth rate to increase.

By the mid-1970’s, frustration over the lack of progress caused many of India’s leaders, including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to contemplate more drastic measures. What ensued in 1976 and 1977 was one of the most aggressive and controversial population policies in history.

Indira Gandhi, the only child of the nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru, rose to power following the sudden death of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966. Selected by party elders because they expected that her parentage and relative inexperience would give them both electoral victory and continued control of the country, Gandhi quickly surprised her backers and emerged as a confident, independent, and decisive ruler.

Hard-won political power, a massive victory in the 1971 election, and a popular role in securing an independent Bangladesh could not, however, insulate Gandhi from the political impact of economic decline. By the early 1970’s, intraparty battles, bad planning, bureaucratic inertia, and recurring drought had combined to cripple the Indian economy. Political opposition and labor strikes, which further hurt the economy, were ignited. The 1973 oil shock, which came on top of already high inflation, exacerbated existing serious economic and political conditions. By June, 1975, Gandhi’s conviction on charges of campaign fraud, her increasingly autocratic manner, and growing charges of government corruption had joined the economic crisis to produce widespread popular unrest and mounting calls for her resignation.

On June 25, 1975, Gandhi reacted to the crises by declaring a national state of emergency. In a move that took most observers by surprise, political freedoms that Indians had enjoyed since independence were suddenly taken away. During this period, civil liberties were suspended, tens of thousands were arrested, state assemblies opposed to Gandhi were dissolved, elections were canceled, the press was censored, compulsory birth control was established, and criticism of the government was banned.

Although each of these moves was a stunning departure from independent India’s democratic tradition, the state of emergency initially worked to Gandhi’s advantage. Arresting political opponents, suppressing popular protest, and ending labor strikes made policy making possible and boosted economic productivity. Unusually good weather produced large harvests. Inflation was subdued. Indeed, when Gandhi unexpectedly called a special election in 1977, it was not the excesses of the state of emergency that proved to be decisive, but the excesses, especially the forced sterilizations, of the renewed emphasis on family planning.

The centerpiece of the population program was an ambitious plan to sterilize millions of Indian males who had fathered two or more children. To meet established targets, federal and state governments constructed an elaborate system of rewards and penalties. Although forced sterilizations were never officially approved by the central government, the incentive system often functioned as force, and in many cases threats and physical force were used.

For many Indians, government offers of immediate compensation (sixteen to nineteen dollars for a vasectomy) as well as increased salaries and preferential treatment in housing, employment, and medical care were impossible to resist. Sanctions were even more persuasive. In many Indian states, couples in which one spouse was not sterilized risked losing government benefits, including jobs and public housing. The state of Uttar Pradesh told its teachers to be sterilized or lose a month’s salary. Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, denied public assistance food rations to families with four or more children. In Maharashtra, the state legislature adopted a bill requiring compulsory sterilization of persons with three children. Other states considered similar legislation, but none received the official presidential assent necessary to become law. Nevertheless, thousands of Indian males, including many who had fathered only one or two children and even some who were childless, were detained and forced to undergo sterilizations.

The use of coercion was a result of several factors: the state of emergency, which gave the federal government and its political allies on the state level essentially unlimited power; widespread agreement on the importance of population control (the program was initially politically popular); a belief among many leaders that the political emergency offered a significant opportunity to establish very strong policies; the emphasis on sterilization (although female literacy and marriage age were also addressed); the making of financial assistance to state governments partially dependent on family-planning performance; the eagerness of state officials to exceed monthly sterilization quotas to curry political favor with Sanjay Gandhi, the prime minister’s younger son, political heir apparent, and most visible proponent of the new policy; and the federal government’s eye regarding state methods employed to meet sterilization targets.

Together, these factors produced a tremendous expansion in all forms of birth control, especially sterilization. Although the target number for sterilizations in the program’s first year was 4.3 million, 8.3 million sterilizations were actually performed. This was more than three times the 2.7 million sterilizations performed the preceding year. Taken together, the estimated proportion of couples using artificial birth control rose from 17 percent to 24 percent in only one year. All agreed that these were the most impressive results of India’s twenty-five years of family-planning efforts, but whether the end justified the means was less clear.


Compulsory birth control had a significant impact on Indian politics and family planning, but its most direct effects were experienced by individual Indians. Instances of compulsory sterilization by threat or physical force were common. In Delhi, a twenty-five-year-old man agreed to undergo a vasectomy in order to receive hospital treatment. In Maharashtra, schoolteachers had paychecks withheld until they recruited sterilization candidates. In Katauli, young men without children were ordered sterilized, and one shop owner was threatened with arson until he joined them. Police in Barsi arbitrarily dragged several hundred men off the streets, drove them to a local clinic, and forced them to undergo vasectomies. Police in a Haryana village enforced widespread involuntary sterilization. In the city of Muzaffarnagar, riots erupted over police roundups, and vasectomy camps performed up to eighteen hundred operations a day. In rural areas, villagers sometimes slept in fields to avoid sterilization teams.

Although in world history it has been far more common for people to work to secure the right to practice birth control, in India people were trying to protect their right to have children. Indira Gandhi failed to appreciate the levels of animosity produced by the population control program. Misreading the public mood because the state of emergency had so effectively suppressed dissent, Gandhi called for elections in March, 1977. It was a stunning miscalculation: Her Congress Party won only 153 of 542 parliamentary seats. Gandhi and her son Sanjay both lost their districts. Polls and voting patterns revealed that the population policy was the most important factor in their defeat. Voting was most lopsided in the populous states of central and northern India, especially Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Haryana, where the sterilization program had been the most severe.

Gandhi’s political career was not over. Establishing herself as the logical alternative when her successors proved unable to address India’s problems, she was reelected in 1980, and in 1983 she received a population award from the United Nations. She remained prime minister until she was assassinated in October, 1984. She was shot by Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the Indian army’s attack on Sikh militants occupying the Golden Temple. Indira Gandhi was succeeded as prime minister by Rajiv Gandhi, her eldest son, who was assassinated in May, 1991.

Compulsory sterilization had a negative impact on future family planning in India. The new government de-emphasized population policy, insisted on voluntary compliance, and renamed the policy “family welfare.” Program effectiveness, including efforts unrelated to sterilization, fell dramatically. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi also gave population policy a relatively low profile. Most of the cultural, economic, and social conditions that retarded earlier efforts remained. Although Indian politicians again began to talk openly of implementing stronger measures, including wider and more significant disincentives for having large families, India’s annual population growth rate remained at 2 percent. This declined to 1.8 percent in the early twenty-first century, even as India’s population exceeded one billion, closing in on China as the world’s most populous country. India;state of emergency (1975-1977) Population;control measures Birth control, compulsory Reproductive rights Sterilization, forced

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chadney, James G. “Family Planning: India’s Achilles Heel?” In India: The Years of Indira Gandhi, edited by Yogendra K. Malik and Dhirendra K. Vajpeyi. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1988. Outstanding review of family-planning policy during Gandhi’s fifteen years in office. Discusses the important early initiatives, the vacillating leadership, and the use of coercion during the state of emergency. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dhar, P. N. Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency,” and Indian Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Memoir by the former head of Gandhi’s secretariat describes the times during which the sterilization program was undertaken. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dyson, Tim, Robert Cassen, and Leela Visaria, eds. Twenty-First Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development, and the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Collection of essays produced by a team of researchers who examined the connections between economic development and population growth in India. First chapter provides background on India’s population history. Includes figures, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Clear, informative analysis focuses on the relation of people to resources as central to an understanding of overpopulation. Argues that expanded family-planning programs are critical and that such programs must provide education and health care to be successful. Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kangas, Georgia Lee. Population Dilemma: India’s Struggle for Survival. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1985. Provides an intelligent overview of India’s population problem and the policies designed to address it. Combines general discussion and specific insights in a manner that is of value to specialists and nonspecialists alike. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malhotra, Inder. Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991. Comprehensive and readable examination of Gandhi’s unique life, from her childhood as Nehru’s daughter to her assassination. Offers little discussion of the 1976-1977 sterilization campaign, but provides a broader context for an understanding of Indian society during that period. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mamdani, Mahmood. The Myth of Population Control: Family, Caste, and Class in an Indian Village. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972. An excellent study of the factors that continue to impede family planning in India. Employs both statistics and personal stories in discussing the individuals and way of life in one village to explain why Indian population policy has failed. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Panandiker, Vishvambher, A. Pai, R. N. Bishnoi, and O. P. Sharma. Family Planning Under the Emergency: Policy Implications of Incentives and Disincentives. New Delhi: Radiant, 1978. Scholarly study presents a detailed overview and analysis of the system of rewards and penalties at the center of the 1976-1977 population program. Includes numerous charts and index.

India Joins the Nuclear Club

Desai Unseats Gandhi as Prime Minister of India

Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple

Indira Gandhi Is Assassinated

Categories: History