Go forth and produce
Good tidings for women of childbearing age in the Government sector. In a circular issued ten days ago, the Government has announced that the generous leave and concessions afforded to women public servants before and after the birth of their first and second children will now be granted to any more children they wish to have. As such, they will now be entitled to maternity leave covering 84 working days, and other concessions such as being allowed to leave one hour early daily.

Looking at the new maternity leave structure from the point of view of breast vs. bottle with regard to babies, Sri Lanka seems to be going in the right direction. Special facilities are being provided to mothers of newborns all over the world not only to ensure the well-being of infants and their mental and physical growth but also to strengthen the mother-child bond.

A crucial question needs to be asked at this point. Are these changes to the maternity leave structure a subtle signal for couples to have more children? Is this a first step towards encouraging Sri Lankan society, to move away from the path of population control?

There have been rumblings and mumblings, even among the so-called educated and literate Sri Lankans about their communities becoming extinct. In recent times they have come out into the open with malicious aspersions being cast against other races and religions, rejecting population control, and urging them to have children at will. In a sense, such allegations are given credence when backed by census statistics.

The fear of conversions, sometimes justifiably, becomes then another weapon used by the advocates of larger families. Just last week, Buddhist monks gracing the JVP-sponsored tank renovation programme urged people to have more children. Is this the way to go? The authorities and the general public must sift fact from perceived fears and fiction. The Bishops' Conference has tried to allay fears of the Sinhala Buddhists.

They say that in 1891, at the zenith of British rule, the Christian population reached its high-point, 10.04 per cent. From 1953 it has been continuosly dropping from 8.95 per cent to 6.89 per cent in 2001, though of course, the latter figure reflects only 18 of the 24 districts where census was taken.

Sri Lankans must consider whether a country of its geographical size can afford to release the brake on population control. At national level, will economic growth be able to keep pace with population growth? Will we only be playing the numbers game, producing more and more economically poor people, providing the house-maids to nouveau riche West Asians, having to accept hand-outs from NGOs, fall at the feet of foreign lending institutions, generally, breeding poverty.

We do not have to go far to see the effects of a baby boom. Even with the population being controlled, thanks largely to effective planning methods, large tracts of land are being divided into small plots for distribution among the second and third generations. A chat with the farmers of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa or Hambantota shows how land for cultivation has grown smaller and smaller as it is divided among sons and daughters and in turn their own children. The country's land mass is also not getting any bigger.

Politically, when the country is heading towards a division, the population density in the South is 599 per sq.km compared with 167 in the north and east. Half the 'south's' land area of 49,959 sq. km is forests and plantations. Compare it with Norway for instance, where the population density is 14 citizens per sq. km. We have the population of Australia with the size of Tasmania. Are we in some kind of race with countries like Bangladesh to become the most populated nations on Planet Earth?

On all other fronts as well, Sri Lanka seems unable to cope with the already existing numbers. Schools are an example - they are overcrowded, with classrooms overflowing with children, while longer and longer queues of parents form at the gates every year seeking admission, by hook or by crook.

Hospitals are no different. There aren't enough beds to go round, and patients have to make themselves a bed on the hard cold floor or share it with another patient. And what of buses and trains? On most routes, it is difficult even to get a toehold on a footboard on the way to school or work.

While across the board welfare measures are granted to mothers, what needs to be kept in mind is how many "woman hours" would also be lost, as women gradually dominate the workplace. Populist decisions aside, what does the country need? A population explosion or a manageable population to get on with the arduous task of pulling the country from the brink and creating an environment where everyone can lead a comfortable life? The choice is ours to decide.

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