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India challenged by its growing population

Its many young people can provide economic vibrancy. But educating them is vital.

NEW DELHI - Aastha Arora is one in a billion. At least that's what they called her when she was born May 11, 2000.

Designated with great fanfare as the symbolic one billionth Indian, Aastha - her name means "faith" in Hindi - is now called something different. "They call me 'the special child' at school," the perky sixth grader said in the family's two-room apartment. "Teachers, friends know about the big ruckus when I was born."

In the last 11 years, India has added 240 million people and, according to U.N. estimates, is on target to surpass China as the world's most populous nation in 2020.

Aastha's mother, Anjana, recalls being wheeled out of the delivery room after a tough birth, more difficult than that of Aastha's brother, only to face about 100 television cameras. "This is like a dream," she told a reporter at the time, even as she feared for her baby's health with all the commotion.

While China has slowed its birthrate dramatically under a controversial one-child campaign, India has relied on voluntary measures. India's fertility rate has dropped by more than half since 1950, but progress has been uneven because population-planning programs are run by individual states, not the central government.

India enacted more coercive methods from 1975 to 1977 during the so-called emergency period, which left a bitter taste. Ratna Jaitley, 75, then a teacher at a government school in New Delhi, said she was ordered to find men to sterilize or risk losing her job, a demand justified at the time for reasons of national development.

With great anguish, she offered up two families that washed and ironed clothes, one with six children, the other with eight, figuring they had already had quite a few offspring.

"A lot of people in my position took undue advantage of the poor and the uneducated," she said. "Many childless and newly married were sterilized."

Even as some economists talk about India's 'population dividend' in coming years - the idea being that young populations tend to be more economically vibrant and productive - that's premised in part on educating the citizenry and providing suitable opportunities.

But some are skeptical, given India's spotty record in preparing young people for the job market.

"There are quite a few challenges for India ahead," said K. Srinivasan, professor emeritus with Mumbai's International Institute for Population Sciences. "The biggest is going to be providing employment to the millions and millions coming up that aren't skilled or qualified or [don't] have access to education."

Large families often have the fewest resources. "India's remaining population predicament is the same as in the rest of the developing world: Population growth remains stubbornly high in the poorest countries and, within countries, in the poorest areas, helping to keep them poor," said O.P. Sharma, New Delhi-based consultant with Washington's Population Reference Bureau, a civic group.

Even as headlines tout India's space program, glitzy call centers, fast-growing economy and rising middle class, the nation is struggling to feed, clothe, and house many of its people amid the population growth, corruption, inefficiency, and weak government.

A report released recently found that the poor in India were better fed 30 years ago and that India is worse off than its neighbors and many sub-Saharan African countries. The picture is similar in health, hygiene, education, and women's status.

Educating and otherwise raising women's stature is a key to curbing runaway population growth, development workers say, yet India came in 113th of 135 countries on women's status, according to a ranking by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.

If anything, rising wealth has reduced women's stature, sociologists say, because the cost of dowries has skyrocketed, leading to more female infanticide and abortions after the sex of a fetus is determined.