Apocalypse later

Posted: 29 August 2000

In 1992, Dr June Goodfield presented the two-part documentary The Cosmic Joke, a widely-acclaimed double bill which explored the linked issues of population, culture and resources with a focus on Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco and Ghana.

For her third film, the 65-year-old intrepid traveller who fronted The Cosmic Joke, stays behind the camera with director Michael MacIntyre and hands the presentation skills to narrator Tom Conti. Apocalypse Later returns to the themes of population growth, resources and family planning - this time with a focus on India and China.

In a land of 17 recognised languages, 963 dialects and many faiths, democracy is a glue which holds the Indian people together. But as Mrs Gandhi discovered at some political cost, slowing population growth in the world's largest democracy is far from easy. When India embarked on a draconian family planning programme under her direction, the outcry was enough to silence the politicians for a decade.

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Despite success in the smaller states of Kerala, Goa and Tamil Nadu, the real challenge is in the 'Hindi belt' states which account for 40 per cent of the population. Here, families are large and contraception take-up is low. Those who volunteer for sterilisation tend to already have big families. The message of the film is that if the government is to get a grip on the problem, it's going to have to give people more choice and improve local healthcare services.

Complex though the situation is, one thing is agreed upon: the need to educate India's women. "In a democracy," argues Ashish Bose of the Institute of Economic Growth, "any compulsion factor should operate in respect of education, not population control." The priority, he suggests, must be to restrain child marriages, to proscribe child labour and to send more people - especially girls - to school.

In China, on the other hand, the Communist government has always recognised the role of education in population management. From the outset, it sent every girl and boy to school. In the wake of strict laws preventing child marriages and steps to improve the status of women, the size of Chinese families dropped dramatically.

In all kinds of ways, the film shows that Chinese women are better off than their sisters in India - in education they receive, in the status and greater personal freedoms they enjoy, in their chances of getting paid work. Though few women are prepared to denounce China's one-child decree as coercive, evasion is systematic and widespread. Meanwhile, in Delhi's corridors of power, women's groups are finally making themselves heard.

"The government is trying to control what it considers to be a demographic crisis by coercive methods," says Brinda Karat of the All India Women's Democratic Association. "It's view seems to coincide with that of aid agencies or western ruling circles which are trying to say the over-populated Third World is responsible for damaging global ecosystems."

That is not everyone's assessment, as the varied views aired in this film make clear. What is widely agreed is that as rural resources in both India and China come under increasing pressure, migration to cities becomes an integral part of the population problem. It is here in the metropolitan slums that dignity and stoicism will be tested as never before. Here, the film implies, apocalypse lurks.

Reviewer: Barry Hunter

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