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Mohan Rao

CONTRACEPTION, COLONIALISM AND COMMERCE: BIRTH CONTROL IN SOUTH INDIA, 1920-1940
By Sarah Hodges
Ashgate, London, 2008, pp. 151, price not stated

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 7 July 2012

There has been a huge academic industry on Kerala’s demographic transition.Birth rates in Kerala began to decline in the second half of the 20th century despite little urbanization, industrialization, and economic growth—key factors that had led to demographic transition in the West in the 19th century. This was of course interesting and worthy of study in itself. But the population control establishment was utterly enthralled, absolutely riveted: could this be repeated? How do we find the magic bullet? They identified women’s education as central to the Kerala phenomenon, along with declines in infant and child mortality. Amartya Sen was of course one of the most famous proponents of this view. Now, this understanding is under severe strain, as more and more evidence accumulates that many of these studies were so beholden to sponsors—in particular the UN, to ways of looking at an issue, in short of framing questions that want simple solutions to complex problems—that they provided them. Women’s education, then, emerged instrumentally, on the population control agenda. But as the title of a superb essay on this theme provocatively asked, was education contraception? (Jeffery and Basu 1996) 1 Was female education in fact a proxy for something else? (Desai 2000)2 And what was this? A brilliant young historian from Kerala, J. Devika, has brought particularly fresh and acute insights into this process early in the century pointing out how patriarchy was reconfigured—with repercussions on women and the family in this period (Devika J. 2008).3 Later, to confound the picture emerged Tamil Nadu’s demographic transition—which defied many of the academic or policy shibboleths of even Kerala. Without the dramatic decline in infant and child mortality rates that had preceded Kerala’s transition, or even the levels of women’s literacy, TN had also commenced her demographic transition. What could have been the factors responsible? Could it have been a povertyled decline? Was it administrative efficiency—what has been named the Tubectomy-Vasectomy Antony factor, after a dynamic administrator in the State named T.V.Antony (Srinivasan T.N).4 Or did it lie in the past, in the influence of the Justice Party and the egalitarian struggles they had initiated, the antibrahmin movement’s attack on brahminical patriarchy? Early in the 20th century, TN did have a small brahminled NeoMalthusian movement calling for contraception—especially among the Others. But so did Maharashtra, which has an entirely ...


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