Influencing society

The population of India reached half a billion in 1974. Most couples had at least three children at the time. It seemed like a huge problem. There was a need for extreme measures. The government forced a new law. Men with three or more children had to be sterilised. Those who failed to do so were to be arrested. Vasectomy camps were opened across the country. Force tactics were employed. These included holding rations, licences and medical treatment. Despite public outrage, 8 million people were sterilised in the following year. The government lost support for driving people against their customs, wishes and beliefs. Eventually, it had to abandon the program amidst violent protests. India’s population kept on rising.

India’s population is still rising. Except in the South Indian state of Kerala, which addressed the brief differently. Kerala understood that the problem was a with the definition of the problem itself. Which is, family planning; more so against the backdrop of an Indian culture symbolic of large families. Family planning was seen as a matter of personal freedom. Forcing people to let go of their individual right was a difficult proposition. People's individual desires and the country's desired social outcome were far too contradicting. Trying to change individual psychology on the issue was not only a difficult one, but a lengthy exercise. Therefore, by definition, enforcing family planning was a difficult problem to solve. The problem had to be changed to something that could be solved.

Kerala then changed its strategy to wipe out illiteracy instead. With the hope of influencing collective patterns, if not individual desires, and link it back to the social outcome — to ultimately make the three-child norm unattractive. Kerala redefined the problem by shifting the focus from family planning to education. By education, it didn’t mean family planning education, but general education. General education that included simple reading, writing and basic mathematics. A problem that couldn’t be solved was now changed into a problem that could be.

A large number of illiterates were tracked down; two-thirds of which were woman. Small teams of volunteers were set out to teach them basics. Since most of them were farmers, classes were held at farms, cowsheds and courtyards. In just three years, Kerala became the world’s only 100% literate state. Soon, the three-children norm became two; and amongst highly educated couples, one. Without using any force, Kerala was able to solve the problem that the rest of India couldn't. It set up an example for the rest of the country. And brought about a philosophy that made it almost embarrassing to have any more than two children, if not one. It is now the only state in India with a stabilised population growth. A few other states are following suit.

The link between family planning and education in itself is no mystery. As women have become more educated, birth rates have fallen. Education lets them pursue interests outside home, in work, and otherwise. We’ve seen this in Western countries over the past 50 years. Kerala’s transition, however, is a mystery for its suddenness.

Mark Buchanan, in The Social Atom, explains a way to understand a sudden link between individual desires and social outcomes — such as in the case of Kerala — is to think in patterns, not people. Patterns exist collectively in society and keep reinforcing themselves. For instance, none of us live in isolation; because of which we're always influenced by the actions of others.

Similarly, when everyone else is educated, and when life comes to depend on education, then what was formerly an understandable decision to forgo education now becomes obviously unattractive to everyone. The suddenness of Kerala's transition is a product of this collective pattern at play. Which means education became self-sustaining to encourage family planning; not because people might have changed as individuals; not because their beliefs might have changed; not because of their human psychology; but more so because of the logic of collective patterns. By linking contradicting individual desires and social outcomes through a collective pattern, Kerala was able to execute a social miracle in short time.

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