Editorial: Less is more

The correlation between an uncontrolled birth growth and poverty was identified in the 18th century when economist and demographer Thomas Robert Malthus introduced his seminal population theory.

Population growth, Malthus said, will always tend to outrun the food supply, and the betterment of humankind is impossible without stern limits on reproduction. At the time, Malthus’ interpretation of the danger of overpopulation was deemed controversial, not just among religious leaders, but also among fellow scientists.

The controversy has still not abated, including in Indonesia, despite its internationally acclaimed success in curbing population growth. That the government has been stretched to breaking point to promote the family planning program shows not everyone is happy about birth control.

The controversy reportedly set off a political see-saw that eventually resulted in the program getting the new motto of “two children are better” to replace the old one of “two children are enough”.

The population issue, however, far outstrips political, moral and socioeconomic interests. It is related to the survival of the nation, even the human race, which is why governments and private donors the world over consistently pour in money to help Indonesia keep its birth rate under control.

Like it or not, the late former president Soeharto deserves praise for pioneering the family planning program. Indonesia’s population grew by an average 2.3 percent between 1971 and 1980, but slowed to 1.4 percent until he stepped down in 1998.

Under Soeharto, family planning worked effectively thanks to the use of force and mass deployment of field workers to every part of the country’s territory to convince residents of the need to control births and delay marriage for the sake of the families’ welfare and the future of their children.

During that time, the National Family Planning Coordinating Board (BKKBN) played a pivotal role and worked under a clear chain of command to ensure the program succeeded.

The reform movement proved a setback for the family planning program, partly because it was associated with Soeharto. Post-Soeharto governments decentralized the program in line with the spirit of regional autonomy, but not all heads of regional administrations care about the population issue.

Central Kalimantan is a living laboratory that proves that an unsuccessful family planning program can lead to a rise in poverty. The province’s growth rate lagged behind the national mark between 2000 and 2005, while its poverty rate increased from 28.35 percent to 41.58 percent.

Vice President Boediono underlined the need to maintain family planning as a priority program for the government, on the grounds that overpopulation would hamper development and spark social problems such as unemployment, food shortages and poverty.

Overpopulation is also a source of environmental degradation, which was why the West Sumatra government intensified the family planning program to stop forests being cleared for residential and industrial areas.

With the BKKBN looking to get 7.1 million families on board this year, extra efforts are mandatory to get people to use contraceptives and other methods of birth control. BKKBN chief Sugiri Syarief claims the body has registered 100 million families over the last 40 years, but admits the threat of a baby boom lingers as many newlyweds tend to expect more than two children.

His concern about the future of the family planning program is reflected in his opposition to non-civic marriages, or nikah siri, and polygamy, which he said would wreak havoc with the BKKBN’s target.

Many may deem the BKKBN chief has overstepped his authority, but this only highlights the endless controversy over the population check. We should not waste time settling the controversy, as our land and natural resources are dwindling and there are many more mouths to feed.