A growing tribe of ‘child-free’ proponents believes children shouldn’t be made to suffer life, and that this is the best way to ease the strain on Earth.
New Delhi: Mumbai resident Raphael Samuel, 27, plans to take his parents to court for giving birth to him without his consent.
“I want to tell all Indian kids that they don’t owe their parents anything,” he told ThePrint. “I love my parents, and we have a great relationship, but they had me for their joy and their pleasure. My life has been amazing, but I don’t see why I should put another life through the rigamarole of school and finding a career, especially when they didn’t ask to exist.”
There is a term for the belief Samuel holds — anti-natalism.
Dramatic as it sounds, anti-natalists like Samuel don’t have a negative disposition towards children or life, but simply believe life which has not given its consent to live should not be brought into the world. In other words, if a child has not agreed to be born — and thus to be subject to life’s difficulties — one doesn’t have the right to give birth to it.
“Other Indian people must know that it is an option not to have children, and to ask your parents for an explanation as to why they gave birth to you,” Samuel said.
Voluntary Human Extinction Movement
Samuel is part of a growing tribe of ‘child-free’ proponents — who sometimes also call themselves Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEM) activists and ‘efilists’ — who believe children should not be brought into the world.
Although small in number, the movement (nicknamed ‘Stop Making Babies’ until it decides on an official name) has big dreams: To set up a national-level organisation that works on spreading awareness about child-free living.
At the forefront of the movement is Pratima Naik, an engineering graduate based in Bengaluru. Like Samuel, Naik is young (28) and committed to never having children.
“This is a completely voluntary, non-violent movement,” Naik said. “We don’t want to impose our beliefs on anyone, but more people need to consider why having a child in the world right now isn’t right.”
Naik said there are plenty of reasons to join — from not succumbing to societal pressure to reproduce to easing the strain on Earth’s resources. Plus there are plenty of children in need of adoption.
Child-free advocates have set up their own social media pages, some of which have gained traction. Samuel’s anti-natalist page is followed by nearly 400 people. Naik’s, called ‘Childfree India’ has nearly 100. Several others like ‘Childfree by Choice INDIA’ and ‘Childfree by Choice’ also have a following that page owners say is picking up.
In truth, young, urban Indians have been choosing not to have children for some years now, despite the stigma attached to it. But India’s emerging child-free movement seeks to ease the burden of that choice on individuals and couples by providing solidarity and support, while also advocating the end of procreation to “save the Earth”.
The gathering will hold its first national meet on 10 February in Bengaluru, where it will decide what shape the movement will take.
A burden on Earth
“Everyone is aware of how much we suffer in life,” said Alok Kumar, 34, another anti-natalist who runs a YouTube channel spreading awareness on child-free living, among other ‘taboo’ subjects. He has a following of over 1,500 people, most of whom seem appreciative of the content being broadcast.
“I thought about whether our world was a conducive place for bringing children up, and I decided it would be better not to have a child.”
Kumar’s decision didn’t come at a cost. When he approached ‘marriageable’ age, his parents were outraged to know he wanted to marry a woman who would agree not to have children. They began looking for a partner for him nonetheless.
“Many of the women I met actually agreed with me (on being child-free),” said Kumar. “But they kept silent. Either they were too afraid to tell the truth, or they wanted to please their own parents.”
When the search proved futile, he experimented on a matchmaking app, and met his wife Shweta (39), a wheelchair user and also a child-free proponent. Kumar’s decision to stay child-free, compounded by his choice to marry a person with disability, was enough reason for his parents to disown him.
Child-free living is a difficult pill for most people to swallow, especially because procreation is considered the next natural step after marriage.
“Once she’s married, a woman is expected to prove her fertility and keep producing children till a boy is born,” said Alok Vajpeyi, head of knowledge management at the Population Foundation of India.
“The problem is families continue having children without considering the negative consequences of having a child without planning.”
For VHEM activists, the direst consequence has been environmental degradation. Remaining childless so the Earth’s biosphere can restore itself has inspired a maxim by which most VHEM activists live: “May we live long and die out.”
It is difficult to deny the effects of overpopulation on the environment, which is among the biggest reasons why global warming has increased so rapidly over recent years. India’s population is bursting at 1.3 billion, with each person carrying an average carbon footprint of about 1.8-2 metric tonnes per year.
“The problem lies in the distribution of the carbon footprint in India,” said Dr Chandra Bhushan, director of the Centre for Science and Environment.
“For the bottom 50 per cent of the population, their carbon footprint is less than half a tonne. Meanwhile, the carbon footprint for the top 10 per cent is about 6 tonnes”.
The child-free movement taking shape in India consists mostly of highly educated, upper or middle-class people, the kind who do not belong in the bottom 50 per cent. For this reason, people like Akash Varia (41) believe that not having a child is the best way to reduce their impact on the environment.
“Due to over-population, we have more consumers of natural resources, and we are destroying nature for our self-interests. Science, technology and money are not helping in keeping these resources alive. I want to reduce my carbon footprint and do my best to improve the quality of life,” Varia said.
A 2009 study said that the “carbon legacy” of having just one child can produce 20 times more greenhouse gas than a person would save by driving a high-mileage car, recycling, using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, etc. A more recent study found that, at least in developed nations, having one fewer child is the most impactful way to reduce one’s carbon footprint, leading to a reduction of approximately 58 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life.
Whose choice is it anyway?
While both Vajpeyi and Bhushan are sceptical that a movement like this is necessary, given fertility rates are on the decline in India as well as the rest of the world, both agree that the right to education and choice is central to population control.
The ‘Stop Making Babies’ group, which has traveled across the country, intends to make the option to say no to children more visible in a country that is shrouded in pro-natalist culture. Members of the movement have often been criticised for being “selfish”, “vain”, and outright “crazy” for their choices and advocacy.
Priya Kurian (28), a professor of psychology from Bengaluru, who would someday like to have children, says “to depend on an unborn child’s reasoning on whether or not they want to be a part of this world is futile”.
“By that logic, if we just leave children to their choices, they could consent to something life-threatening, and if we let it be, then our infant mortality rate would be something else altogether,” Kurian said.
However, to staunch anti-natalists like Kumar, the question of danger and harm doesn’t arise if the child doesn’t exist, nor does the prospect of suicide.
“I don’t regret or feel wronged for having been born,” he said. “But I cannot assume the same for my child.”
‘Say what you feel’
Naik admits that a lot of questions need to be answered before ‘Stop Making Babies’ evolves into a formal platform: Where will the organisation stand on suicide, assisted or otherwise? Or abortion? Or capital punishment?
Because procreation and childbirth form the very basis of our lives, the possibilities of a movement, though minuscule in impact, are many.
In some ways, what the movement seeks to do is truly radical. Procreation, childbirth, and motherhood have been worldwide norms for millenia now. In India, motherhood undergirds just about everything, from basic familial structures to state rhetoric. By calling for the end of procreation, the movement questions these norms. It still, however, has light years to go before achieving a more substantial reach, especially among more rural populations.
“People have changed,” Naik said. Although still uncomfortable, more people are receptive to the idea of child-free living. “We’re just asking them to go one step further and not be afraid of saying how they feel out loud.”