DACCA, Bangladesh -- The Bangladesh government plans a mass voluntary sterilization of about 3,000 men and women Thursday, launching a two-year population control program that U.S. officials call 'extremely ambitious.'
Bangladesh officials said Tuesday that military ruler Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad will formally begin the program in a radio and television appeal to the 90 million people of Bangladesh where seven babies are born every minute.
Eventually, the government wants to persuade 1.4 million people, both men and women, to accept sterilizations.
If the program succeeds in reducing the country's birth rate by 1 percent to 1.5 percent, by 1985 the population will be held to 160 million living in about 56,000 square miles of land.
'We are sanguine it will succeed,' a health official said.
Hugo Hoogenboom, executive director of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization, said the Bangladesh sterilization drive was greater even than China's on a per capita basis.
'It is an extraordinarily ambitious program for a country like Bangladesh and as far as we know it is proportionately the largest sterilization program in the world,' Hoogenboom said in New York.
Hoogenboom, whose group has provided $1.3 million in U.S. Agency for International Development grants to population control programs in Bangladesh, said he did not expect forced sterilizations.
'There may be instances of overzealous people but I think the guidelines are not only to have voluntarism but to enforce it as well,' he said.
As Ershad asks his countrymen to accept voluntary sterilizations for the sake of national survival, 60,000 village doctors will trek through 68,000 hamlets leading propaganda campaigns, Health Ministry officials said.
Bangladesh, nestled on the Bay of Bengal and bordered by India and Burma, was born out of the bloody civil war of independence that ended Dec. 15, 1971, with the former East Pakistan breaking away from the rest of Pakistan.
In a buildup to the Thursday launch, all government ministers and top civil and military officials will fan out into villages Wednesday to warn that population control is the country's No. 1 problem.
The Health Ministry said doctors and paramedics have been sent to all 312 rural health complexes to perform at least 10 sterilizations or vasectomies in each center Thursday. That would be a total of 3,120 sterilizations.
The government has trained 1,200 doctors and 25,000 field workers who must conduct two sterilizations and two vasectomies each month to earn their salaries.
Seven children are born in Bangladesh every minute, which means the country needs to build 281,000 new houses and provide 785,000 new jobs every year to keep pace. Current employment is estimated at 30 million people, or a third of the population.
Some Bangladeshis are skeptical the government program can succeed.
'The target is high considering the difficulties,' said an official of the Bangladesh Voluntary Association, one of the groups helping implement the program.