India: The Loop Way

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The grey-haired spinster waved a delicate, S-shaped twist of plastic at her audience of newsmen in New Delhi last week and announced triumphantly: "It's foolproof." What Dr. Sushila Nayar, India's Health Minister, held aloft was a contraceptive device. She was opening Family Planning Week, the start of a new government campaign against the nation's severest problem: overpopulation.

The problem is everywhere to behold—in fly-filled villages, along dusty bullock paths, in the dismal density of city tenements—millions of people trapped in desperate squalor. In the hope of ending all this, India has struggled ineffectually for years to promote family planning. The rhythm method proved too complicated for a 75% illiterate population. To help women keep track of the days of the month, the government devised a handy string of beads (green for safe days, black for unsafe). Children upset the arithmetic by toying with the beads. Some women mistook the strings for a charm against conception; others shunned them because they resembled the necklaces Hindus hang around the necks of cows as decoration. Other methods—even the pill—proved too costly or required too much medical supervision. More than 800,000 persons have submitted to voluntary sterilization since 1956, but this has not substantially reduced the country's birth rate.

Subsidized Control. Though Dr. Nayar herself had long been a birth-control skeptic in the Gandhi tradition (she was once his private physician), she agreed three years ago to test the Lippes loop, a U.S.-designed intrauterine contraceptive device that prevents the development of a fetus in the womb. Only eleven of the 2,839 Indian women fitted with them last year became pregnant, and five of these conceived after their little white loops had been removed. That convinced her, she said last week, that Lippes loops are "the answer" to India's problem.

The loops cost so little to manufacture (1¢ each) that the Indian government expects to give away 1,000,000 within a year, 2,000,000 a year by 1967, and 5,000,000 a year after that. While the country prepares a plant to produce its own, it will rely on 1,200,000 gift loops from the Manhattan-based Population Council. Radio broadcasts, movies and roving clinics will explain the device in thousands of villages, and the government will divide a $1-per-insertion subsidy among midwives who bring women to the clinics, doctors who insert the loops, and local agencies that administer the program. Tradition may be against it, but last week the Municipal Corporation of Delhi bought newspaper space to advertise: "A small family is a happy family. Plan your family the 'loop' way."

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