Tribal leaders in India's remote northeast are offering cash rewards to women who bear more than a dozen children in a bid to keep from being outnumbered by settlers from elsewhere, a leader said yesterday.
In the past two months, Khasi tribal chieftains in Meghalaya State have paid 16,000 rupees (US$348) each to four such women including 45-year-old Amilia Sohtun, who has 17 children, said H.S. Shylla, a member of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council.
Sohtun runs a tea stand at Laitkor Peak, a tourist spot near Meghalaya's capital, Shillong.
Tribal elders defended the move, which has infuriated many women and health activists.
"Our community faces a genuine threat of being outnumbered by outsiders, and the only way we can prevent our race from becoming extinct is to ensure our population rises soon enough," Shylla said.
The council is an elected administrative body of tribal leaders in Meghalaya. It works with the state government on development issues, and makes decisions regarding customary community rules.
The Khasis, numbering less than a million, are the majority community in Christian-dominated Meghalaya, which has 2.5 million people.
"The community is worried about an unabated influx of migrants from outside the state," Shylla said.
However, some in the state decried the incentive program.
"We oppose the idea because no one has the right to keep having babies unless she can provide them with a quality life," said Theilin Phanbuh, an activist in Shillong.
"It is for the authorities to check the influx or settlement of outsiders in traditional land belonging to our people. Increasing our community's population by having more children is not the answer," she said.
Meghalaya health activist Hasina Kharbhih also slammed the idea.
"A woman's body is not a machine that she can go on having babies. The government must intervene on the Khasi Council's decision because of the health issues involved," she said.
Shylla said the decision to pay mothers of more than 12 "has been generally welcomed."
The council has received four more requests for cash incentives from women with more than a dozen children, Shylla said.
In Meghalaya's matrilineal society, a man moves into his bride's home and their children take the mother's maiden name.
Meghalaya is one of the seven states in India's northeast where fears of migration from other parts of India and Bangladesh have helped fuel separatist revolts.