All photos courtesy Aastha Arora
May 11, 2000. 05:05AM. Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital.
Aastha Arora’s birth into a middle-class Punjabi family in the second-most populous country in the world was perhaps destined to be ordinary, had it not aligned with the “stars” of the 2001 census commission of India.
“On May 11, 2000, the census officials realised that they had still not reached the billionth [baby] mark,” Arora told VICE. “My parents told me that the officials made the decision that if there was a girl child born anywhere in India between 3AM and 6AM, they would give her the tag of the billionth baby. As luck would have it, I was that child,” added the now 22-year-old based in the Najafgarh locality in south-west Delhi.
The United Nations declared, yesterday, November 15, as the Day of 8 Billion, marking the birth of the symbolic “eight billionth baby” in Manila, Philippines. This is an inexact number, since there is no official count, but the international organisation said its projections just crossed the line. This unprecedented growth is due to the gradual increase in human lifespan, thanks to improvements in public health, nutrition, personal hygiene and medicine. It is also the result of high and persistent levels of fertility in some countries like India, which is expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation in 2023, the UN said in July.
Arora, for her part, was declared to the world as India’s “one billionth citizen” by a calculation based more on happenstance than actual math. 2000 was the year of India’s 14th population census, conducted once every decade. While the findings would be released only a year later, in 2001, the counting had begun. A bulk of policy decisions and budgetary allocations would be premised on the census. But a supreme question reigned above the cacophony: Would India cross the one-billion-citizens mark, becoming only the second country after China to do so?
The question was merely rhetorical, and soon after Arora’s birth, her mother was shifted to a special ward in Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi, where an army of reporters, bureaucrats, and ministers would descend – all making a beeline to catch a glimpse of India’s billionth citizen.
India’s population explosion is a double-edged sword. For some, India’s young demographic share is a ready resource that needs to be tapped for the country to become a trillion-dollar economy with an equitable distribution of resources. For others, it’s a strain on public spending, deepening poverty, and an increasing class divide. India’s population is likely to increase by a multiple of 1.09 between 2021 and 2031, according to the United Nations. In India, the population explosion leads to debates over who gets to have the power, and the continued suppression of minorities, as well as contributes to fears of majoritarianism.
In this context, the birth of India’s billionth baby was also a bittersweet moment back in 2000. Arora, who now works as a nurse in a private hospital, recalls the first time she was conscious of being “the billionth baby.” “When I was in the first grade, barely five years old, I knew that I must be someone special, as the media would come every year to interview me. Later, I would realise that I was born into a simple, middle-class household. I was surviving, and not a celebrity.”
As Arora was in the same school from nursery till the tenth grade, all her friends and colleagues knew of her special birth status. However, in college, she made it a point not to reveal the billionth baby tag to friends because she didn’t want all the superficial attention on her once again. “When they eventually found out online, there was enthusiasm for a week, even among the teachers, and then everything went back to normal.”
Whenever Arora was followed by the media right from her being interviewed in school corridors to her own home, her classmates would follow her, hoping that they would be interviewed, too. For Arora, this charade felt unnecessary, especially as she had to behave formally and be extra disciplined on those days. The sporadic interest from the media every few years weirded her out, even more so as it failed to translate into anything substantial.
“When I was born, someone in the government said that I was born with a ‘golden spoon,” she said. “As I would discover later, there was nothing “golden” about my birth. Now, 22 years later, if I were to visit Safdarjung Hospital, they wouldn’t even recognise me.”
Arora claims that the government had promised her three things: free higher education, free healthcare in government hospitals, and free railway passage across the country. However, nothing was promised in writing, so nothing was implemented or put into process. “At the time, my mother was shifted to a special, private ward in the hospital. My father was busy making sense of what was going on. Neither of them had the time nor energy to get these things in writing.”
Despite Arora excelling in academics, she had to transfer to a government school after the 12th grade due to a financial crunch – her father’s job was not enough to support her aspirations. At the time of her birth, the family had received no government aid, either. The only aid came in the form of a Rs 1 lakh ($1,220) fund received from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and another lakh from the Punjab National Bank (PNB) where the family had an account. Her education up to graduation could be funded with the help of the interest from this money that her parents put away in a fixed deposit, as well as an education loan. Her 60-year-old father now works at a grocery store, and her 55-year-old mother works as a beautician in a salon. Her brother helps contribute towards the family income through his earnings as a software engineer. Arora also earns a stipend as a nurse but is keen to pursue a master’s degree in science so that she can work as a specialist nurse.
Only recently, the BBC contacted Sumitra Mahajan, the then minister for women and child development, who said that she does not remember any promises being made to the family, except for a fund from the UNFPA, which Arora confirmed was received. Mahajan added that if the family reaches out to her, she is willing to help them, even now.
“I remember how my brother and I would haul the luggage to help set up my mother’s beauty parlour. We never had our parents’ time because they were always hustling,” Arora said. “There is a lot riding on my shoulders. I want to work harder, study harder, and make all the sacrifices worth it. I don’t expect anything else from the government, or even the world, except that they fulfil the promises they made.”