DACCA, Bangladesh -- The government ordered teams to fan out through impoverished Bangladesh today to start work on what one population control expert called 'the largest sterilization program in the world.'
The two-year plan -- critical to the country's ability to feed and house its 90 million people -- was to begin formally with a radio and television appeal Thursday by Bangladesh's military ruler, Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad.
Officials said Tuesday the crash program hopes to persuade 1.4 million people, both men and women, to accept eventual sterilizations to slow the nation's brisk birth rate of seven babies per minute.
If the program reduces the birth rate by 1 percent to 1.5 percent, then by 1985 the population will be 160 million people. 'We are sanguine it will succeed,' a health official said.
Hugo Hoogenboom, executive director of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization, said the Bangladesh birth control drive was greater than even 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.
In a buildup to the Thursday launch, all government ministers and top civil and military officials were told to fan out today into villages to warn that population control is the country's top problem.
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.
The government has trained 1,200 doctors and 25,000 field workers for the sterilization program.
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.
Currently the country must build 281,000 new houses and provide 785,000 new jobs every year to keep pace with its birth rate. Employment is estimated at 30 million people, or a third of the population.
Some Bangladeshis are skeptical the government program can meet its goals.