Hospital security guards beat back the crowds as India's billionth baby is born

Hospital guards in Delhi yesterday climbed on to the bed next to a new mother and used wooden clubs to beat back a crowd of more than 200 journalists and onlookers clamouring to get a glimpse of India's billionth citizen.

The birth of the baby girl - named Astha, which is Hindi for faith - officially brought India's population to one billion, an event which was marked with a chaotic crush of photographers and television crews but also renewed concern over the nation's rapid population growth.

Astha was born to Anjana and Ashok Arora in Safdarjang Hospital in Delhi at 5:05am. Just a few hours later, the swaddled and wailing baby and her mother were presented to United Nations officials, two government ministers and a horde of journalists.

"Don't crush the baby," government minister Sumitra Mahajan screamed into her microphone as spectators climbed onto window ledges overlooking the bed of the dazed mother. As he was jostled out of the way, the father waved his arms, pleading for the crowd not to come too close.

With an estimated 42,000 births per day in India, it was impossible to know in advance exactly where the billionth baby would be born.

The UN claimed that India had in fact already passed the one billion mark on 15 August last year. But the Indian government projected the landmark birth for 11 May 2000. Health ministry officials, with the concurrence of the UN Population Fund, decreed that a baby girl born on Thursday morning in the 1,500-bed Safdarjang Hospital would symbolically mark the milestone.

Yet the billionth birth was hardly cause for celebration. Since gaining its independence from Britain in 1947, India has tried to curb its exploding population with little success.

In 1947, India had 300 million people; it now has the second largest population in the world after China. Indian authorities still find it difficult to persuade families to have fewer children: the population currently increases by 15.5 million people a year at an annual growth rate of 1.9 per cent, which is more than double that of China. The Indian government's planning commission estimates that it will surpass China as the world's most populous nation in the year 2050, when it is expected to have 1.5 billion people.

The UN has warned that if India's demographic growth does not slow down, it is likely to cause shortages of food and water in the near future.

Beginning yesterday morning, an automatic recording by the state-owned telephone company told anyone who picked up the phone to dial in New Delhi: "Our population has now reached one billion. Let's have small families for a stronger India."

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