Dr Nandita Saikia, Heads the Centre for Online and Distance Education as Professor in Public Health and Mortality Studies at International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai. Her earlier stints include teaching at the premier institution of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and the Population Research Centre, Institute of Economic Growth (IEG). She finds the domain very interesting, challenging and considers it vital in formulating social and development policies for the nation’s progress. Currently, she is involved in mortality research and is the principal coordinator of …..survey.
India has raced past China to rank as the most populated country in the world. How do you see this population boom impacting health and food security?
The new population ranking has not made any significant impact because even at second rank India was facing challenges, some of which continue to exist. In terms of population issues, we as a nation are definitely overcoming some of the old challenges, such as health or population demographic subject which has evolved and changed drastically in the last 15 years e.g., the earlier focus particularly on reproductive health like fertility etc., has shifted to issues of aging or geriatrics, adult mortality and non-communicable diseases etc., which were not there earlier. Considering that India is a diverse and multi-pluralistic society, we are passing through a phase where some old challenges have been overcome and some new challenges have emerged. When it comes to food security, India is very comfortable, but the problem is of changing food habits, because studies have shown that people have poor knowledge about food and nutrition. As a result, nutrition has been replaced with taste and poor dietary habits impacting health. The positive note is that life expectancy is increasing, which is a mortality indictor that shows the well-being of any society or nation.
The theme of World Population Day, 2023 focuses on gender equality. India is still grappling with gender based cultural taboos and bias. How can gender parity be attained according to you?
India has made significant advancements, yet there are societal challenges because of community beliefs and practices to overcome. When we say that India is still having gender resistance, I think it presents half the picture. As India is very diverse across demographic indicator it would be wrong to say that every community or ethnic group is facing gender issues. Exceptions are the northeast and in some parts of the south which still have a matriarchal system where women are empowered or in a state like West Bengal where girls coming from Kolkata do not face gender imparity. India however, has attained a level despite gender drawbacks in some regions, but largely there is perceptible change in the attitude of society. Even in rural areas daughters are now being encouraged to study because of which many women are top achievers in varied professions that compare with the best of developed nations of the world. Despite the progress, the need of Indian women is economic power.
What are the challenges in raising their economic status, especially women from semi-rural and rural areas?
I have personally experienced that those girls coming from rural West Bengal to study in big cities are more resilient that those of metros like Kolkata. So we have to check how other variables also interact to get the full picture. If we study the various indicators, I find there is still hope and that there is significant improvement because we see that the trend for e.g., accessimal deaths has seen substantial decline in mortality because of unbiased inoculation drives at national and state levels. It is seen that female infant deaths has come down drastically and aged women live longer as compared to male. Government policies too are very supportive and low fertility or reproduction where couples go for one child are the reasons for improvement in the health index of India, besides covering the gender gap to a large extent. Women of some sub groups, however, are bound by traditions which we will have to identify at the micro level i.e., village and block level through campaigns. If we target the disadvantaged group individually the outcomes will be more effective. Also, we must acknowledge and recognise the immense contribution of home-makers, who raise families, contributing significantly to society and economic development of the country.
What is that interests you the most about your subject, and how are you using that knowledge for building a more empowered society?
As we cover various parameters of issues across the micro and the macro level in our research such as the ongoing accessimal deaths, the collated data serves as authentic information for the policy makers to plan any public sensitization or beneficial programme. So whatever we do helps at the policy level. I contribute regularly to publications and also express my views. As a teacher, I am educating generations and 50 percent of my doctorate students are girls, which is another dimension. At JNU, I supervised 16 research scholars and another 8-9 students are still working on their dissertations. I attend seminars and conferences or am part a group for research on field.