People Bomb

CNN Video Special Reports (1992)


Life in the developing world is in many ways better now than a few decades ago. People are living longer and living better. Fertility rates are falling in almost every country. With all the progress, millions of people are trapped in poverty. Fertility rates are dropping, but with the large population base (5 billion), it is growing more than ever before. The growth is going to be in the continents of Asia, Africa, and Lating America. People are arriving in the city and there is no way it can absorb them. We will have deepening poverty, deepening discontent.

Mark Walton:

We have become a People Bomb exploding across the developing world, stressing the poorest nations on earth and threatening the richest. Over the years, we have made progress diffusing this bomb, but not enough and not fast enough. By the middle of the next century there will be three times as many people as today, possibly 14 billion people. As the planet grows more crowded, the family of man faces more poverty, disease, death, more waste and pollution, more violence, crimes of hate. Who is to blame? All of us are responsible.

People Bomb

Who's overpopulated?

The developing world where there are too many people on the edge of survival, fouling the land, water, air, compounding a crisis of poverty. It is the very face of overpopulation (like the Kairols of Nepal with six children)


The developed world with fewer population but with more energy consumption (e.g. the Bakers in the middle class suburb of Pleasant Hill, near San Francisco).

Overpopulation is not just an issue of how many people (Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University), but how much impact each person has (Carl Pope, Sierra Club).

- The birth of a baby in the U.S. is on the order of 30 times as big a disaster for the global climate change, ozone layer, acid precipitation as a baby born in a poor family in Nepal, Bangladesh, or Colombia (Paul Ehrlich).

- According to the U.N., the industrial world with 1/4 of the world population uses 3/4 of its energy, 85% of its wood products, 72% of its steel. It also spits out 3/4 of all carbon-di-oxide emissions and 1/2 of the damaging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

- Automobile use in the developed world is incredibly more damaging than a billion people who don't use cars. The lifestyle in the developed world is designed around the automobile. It is not just the things spouting out of the car, or the burning of the rubber, but there are environmental costs of building the automobile (Paul Ehrlich).

- The household energy and material consumption is also vastly disparate. The very lifestyle of the developed world with materialistic demands traps them in a cycle of environmental destruction. There really is no way to throw anything in this world too; right now, we are sending ships and trains all over the place that carry garbage from American cities to other parts of America (Paul Ehrlich). In Nepal, what little trash that Kairols generate goes to feed the animals or into a compost pile; when there is little to have, there is hardly anything to throw out.

Any member of the family in Nepal would probably be rather like the ones in Pleasant Hills, but the fact remains that it is the families like the ones in Pleasant Hills whose numbers and consumption are threatening the survival of the planet. Both are overpopulated, but our overpopulation is a greater problem for the planet than their overpopulation.

Megacities (Marina Mirabella on Rio de Janeiro)

Duality between the tourist, rich areas of Ibanema or Copacabana and the poor Centro in the downtown. Many of the people in the big cities in the poor countries of the developing world live in urban shantytowns who have come to the city from countryside for a better life. There is a lack of running water, electricity and other basic services. Crime and security are the prime concerns.

The story of Debra and her mother Sabarina who came to Rio to find a job: Sabarina takes the pill, but often forgets or does not get them and she finds that she is pregnant. However, she does not want to have abortion. Debra has had sex with several boyfriends, but has little or no knowledge of contraception. There is little access to birth control or accurate information about it. As Debra reveals her ignorance, "My friend who got pregnant told me that if you take the pill, when you get older, you get all soft and rotten inside."

The cycle of poverty continues with more migration to already overcrowded cities. More babies, and the increasing number of poor people puts a further strain on the city and its infrastructure. They live in the shantytowns with scarce services. Polluting buses, overcrowding, untreated sewage are common. The pickpockets and muggers arrive from the shantytown to prey on residents and tourists.

It is the misery that drives people to a life of crime and the misery is growing, but the people keep arriving here and there is no way the city can absorb them (Lopez, El Povo journalist). As Rio's population increases, so will its problems (e.g. crime, security, poverty).

Desperate Decisions (Gary Streiker on Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Nearly 1/3rd of the women in Ethiopia do not want a child, but only a tiny percentage use contraception. Many women have abortion due to economic necessity, although it is illegal in Ethiopia. Illegal abortion is often unsafe, and the women die (the case of Hatatoo). Contra-ceptive methods are available but not necessarily accessible. The contraception problem exists since:

- Most people do not have information about contraception (almost no counseling, or information about contraceptive methods)

- They have no will to break cultural traditions (cultural taboos regarding talking about sex, contraceptive methods)

- They have no money. Although the government is trying to provide family planning services at free or almost nominal cost, but it has been able to reach only 4% of the eligible population (Dr. Seyoum Yusuf). Nearly everyone has to depend on private market. (a year's supply of contraceptives in the private market can cost $40, a substantial amount for a family that earns only $120 on average).

In one district, the health workers educate women about family planning by (i) making house calls, (ii) teaching sexual responsibility and contraception at schools, (iii) acting on stages to demonstrating the problems of unwanted pregnancy. But the vast majority of teens do not have information, as the coverage is limited and those outside the schools are not included. The government clinics do not give out free condoms to prevent teen sex, but these are available in the youth centers. "The great majority has not yet been addressed, what we have so far addressed can be equated to a drop in the ocean, you know" (Melany Mashasha)

The Trigger

A Woman's Place (Larry Lamotte in India)

From birth to death, most girls in the developing countries are dependent, second rate and powerless--nothing more than common laborers under the thumb of her parents and husband, undereducated and undernourished. In India, 1/4th of them will die before they are fifteen. As a doctor claims, "I have noticed that when a child falls sick, the parents will bring the son to me very quickly to be examined. They may not bring in daughter and if they do, she is generally very very sick." The boy is the bread winner and they have to depend on him. He is life, looking after their assets. The girl child is socialized into a negative self-image. She tends to be told that or at least experience that she has a second class status compared with her brother.

The low status of the women is the single most important reason for the world's population to continue to rise. Without an education, they cannot dream of opportunities outside of bearing child; without job skills, they cannot seek a life outside of husband's control; without voice they cannot decide on how to use their own their bodies besides their own families. It is a story of the modern day bondage and its impact on the population. It is a story of the girl-child.

Girls receive less education than boys--limited resources of the family are spent on paying the dowry. The husband's dowry demands are so extreme that it often results in physical violence: "the mother in law holds the daughter in law, then sister in law pours the kerosene and the husband lights the match."

"The modern woman should have an aim in life. She should be able to think for herself, be independent. The moment you emancipate a woman's mind, she takes decisions on her own behalf and she takes the right decisions. An educated woman knows very well that she can support only a small family and take care of her children with optimum resources."

An educated woman gains independence, identity, hope, but few get the opportunity. For most, however, hope is buried beneath the weight of centuries of hand-me-down conditioning imposed by men and passed on from mother to daughter.

Son Mania (Larry Lamotte in India)

Fatehpur Sikri near Delhi was built in honor of the Sufi Saint who correctly predicted the birth of the King's son. Several Indian couples flock to the temple even now in the belief that the pilgrimage will help in giving birth to a son.

For Indians, man conquers the world. But too many families have had too many children while trying to produce sons. As in so many developing nations in Africa and Asia, son mania is an important factor in India's overwhelming overpopulation problem. In India, about 2 babies are born every two seconds.

While many seek spiritual help in getting a boy, others turn to sex detection clinics and amniosynthesis for determining that they have a son. If the fetus were detected to be a girl, it is often aborted. In one study, out of 8000 abortions, only one was a boy.

The birth of a male child is into the Indian psyche, a cultural thing. If a girl is born, it may also result in infanticide. Change will be excruciatingly slow in India as centuries of customs and religion are woven into the souls of the people. According to Hindu scriptures, only a son can light the funeral pyre for the spirit to enter the heaven.

When babies die (Larry Lamotte in Gorkha, Nepal)

Nepal's grim truth: more than 350 children die every day. If a jumbo jet carrying 350 passengers were to crash in the Himalayas, it will make headline news. But these children die silently (Habib Humman, UNICEF Director).

In developing countries, when too many children die, the population rises. A Nepali woman, "because some of my children had died, I thought I could not stop having children. I had no guarantee that the children I had will live. I needed many children so that they could help me in my old age. It is like security." About 1 in 5 children die before they reach the age of five. There is almost no medical help available; even if it is, it is out of reach for the poor (there is only 1 children's hospital in the whole of Nepal). Families take it for granted that children will die due to diarrhoea, pneumonia, or other causes.

The children are born in an environment of poverty--there is less food to go around while the population is large. 6 months before the harvest months are considered to be hungry months, and families are fortunate to have even one meal a day. The women are anemic and unhealthy. The children are malnourished. Their age and size do not match.

The younger generation is learning the negative effects of a large family from their elders. Dalchini went through sterilization after having two boys; her brother joined the Save the Children, an International organization, that educates women through skits, provides preventive health care, and evening literacy classes. Nepal is a 13th century country shoved into a 20th century world.

The Fallout


Some solutions are as disastrous as the problem of People Bomb. In India, population growth was attempted to be contained through population control targets, coercive sterilization, and false promises. Nearly a million were sterilized in India in the early 1970s during the Emergency period. In Visakha, India, in 1986, over 300,000 people were sterilized by tricking them into believing that they would be granted land and loans. In New Delhi, poor people were lured into sterilization by promising them some money; this was a result of the sterilization quota to be attained by government agencies. In Jaipur, sterilization camps were held that were an "assembly line for degradation and death." Improper sterilization of instruments, and no follow ups resulted in several cases of paralysis, internal bleeding and death. Over 45 sterilizations were performed in one hour by one doctor--far too many for meeting surgical standards by one doctor. Over 5000 women die from sterilization campaigns.

India is now adopting a more holistic approach--better incentives, improving the status of women, widespread education, better healthcare.

All God's Children (Mark Walton in Manila, Philipines)

Smokey Mountain in Manila, Philipines is a community built on a trash dump where over 25,000 people subsists "among methane fumes scavenging hope and survival from droppings of garbage truck."

For many children living in Smokey Mountain, the way out is death. Yet, for most Filipinos in Manila, artificial contraception is not a choice since 80% are Roman Catholic. For the orthodox, users of contraception are considered sinners "if they know it to be wrong, and understand it to be wrong." Natural birth control through the rhythm method (avoiding sex during period of high fertility is condoned by the Church). The Catholic religion is as influential in Latin America and growing in Africa too.

In Philipines, Marcos provided free family planning and health education, but in '86, Aquino who came to power with the help of the Church, funding for the program stopped and the supply of contraceptives stopped. They consider the problem to be not one of too much population, but that "too few control too much wealth."

No Choice (La Paz, Bolivia)

Bolivia is a country of extremes--it is the fourth Latin American country with the highest birth rate. The country is underdeveloped and underpopulated; hence family planning is not a priority. The President claims that the country needs more people. But, it is the poor who have many children. There are not many choices for the women. In San Pedro, Bolivia, information about birth control methods is little and the Catholic Church does not favor such methods. In a a male dominated society, rhythm method of contraception also does not work as the women have to oblige their husbands. Women are also shy. There is also a cultural belief that women should have large families. Poverty is not solved by family planning.

Price of Success (Mark Walton in Jakarta, Indonesia)

Jakarta is a population success story with a dark side. In the early 60s, over 60% lived in slums and squalor. In the 1970s, Indonesia grew economically with an increase in energy exports following the oil embargo in the Middle East. President Suharto emphasized economic growth, but at the same time stressed slower population growth rate. People using condoms, Intra Uterine Devices (IUDs), and pills were felicitated. An elaborate bureaucracy was established with a Minister at the Cabinet rank to control population growth. Targets were set for the health workers and incentive bonuses awarded for attaining the target. Birth control safaris were organized. Population growth slowed, with families having 3 children as compared to 6 children in the earlier generation.

Yet there were problems for attaining the targets too fast. Although Indonesia attained record levels in the implantation of Norplants (a synthetic hormone for preventing birth) and IUDs, the procedures were not properly carried out. Infections due to unsterile instruments and the side effects of the contraceptive methods were not uncommon; also some critics claim the safaris were coercive in nature. The women were expected to trust the midwife, doctor or the supervisor, while the emphasis should have been on enlightening the women.


The Machismo Factor (Marina Mirabella in Mexico)

The Mariachi traditional song claims "Man is the King, and I'll do what I want. My word is the law." The machismo lifestyle plays a big role in population growth all over the world. It is macho for the man to have several women--"the macho man wants to have many women and does not want to take care of them." The machismo factor stems from a lack of education, and the age-old attitudes that have been handed down from father to son. The Mexican government has instituted programs to educate the younger generation about sexual responsibility and birth control.

China's Cross Roads

China has the largest population in the world. It has instituted strict population control policy of "one family, one child" in urban areas. There is an elaborate setup for monitoring population growth. China believes that the reproductive rights belong to the state; the state educates, indoctrinates and intimidates the family planning practices. The practices are enforced through a system of rewards and punishments. If a man living in the city has more than one child, he can lose his job, housing, medical coverage, and food subsidies. However, in the rural areas, where 75% of the population lives, the population growth continues. Son mania exists in China too. The one child policy was relaxed recently so that if the first child is a girl, the family can have one more chance to have a child (who could potentially be a son). Some critics claim that China should be focusing on overall economic growth and not population control.

India's Victory (Larry Lamotte in Kerala, India)

Kerala in India is another success story in terms of population control; but it also has a dark side. It has had a dramatic fall in family size, lowest birth rate, low infant deaths, and the women outnumber men. It has adopted a holistic approach--commitment to reading and writing, female literacy, good health care, better working conditions, supply of food to school children. As a result fewer children die; families are also smaller. The Communist party has ensured equable growth in the society. Yet, Kerala also has a dark side. It has the highest unemployment rate and morbidity rate (suicides, tension, heart attack).