NEW DELHI, India -- With the birth of a baby girl named Astha -- ''Faith'' in Hindi -- India's population officially hit 1 billion today, an event marked with fanfare and concern over the nation's too-rapid growth.
Astha was born to Anjana and Ashok Arora at 5:05 a.m. this morning, putting India in an exclusive club with China as the only nations with populations exceeding 1 billion.
Just nine hours old and wailing, Astha was wheeled out with her sari-clad mother before government ministers and a horde of journalists at Safdarjang Hospital in the Indian capital. She weighed six pounds 13 ounces at birth, doctors said.
''I feel fine,'' said the mother, Anjana, weak and overwhelmed by the chaotic reception. ''I'm happy,'' said Ashok Arora, who works in an automotive spare parts shop for $50 per month.
''Don't crush the baby,'' Sumitra Mahajan, the minister for women and child welfare, screamed into her microphone as nearly 200 journalists swarmed over the mother's bed. Hospital guards climbed onto a nearby bed and beat back the journalists with truncheons.
The government staged the 1 billionth baby milestone as part of a public campaign pressing Indians to have smaller families and rein in the country's spiraling population growth.
Every measure of progress India has made since independence in 1948 has been swamped by the swelling population: Food production has tripled, yet many people go hungry; literacy has increased, but so has the overall number of illiterate people.
With an estimated 42,000 births per day in India, it was impossible to know exactly where the billionth baby would be born.
The government picked May 11 as the date -- calling it ''a moment of celebration, a moment to ponder.'' Health Ministry officials, with the concurrence of the U.N. Population Fund, decreed that a baby girl born this morning in the 1,500-bed Safdarjang Hospital would symbolically mark the milestone. Twenty-four babies were born in Safdarjang between midnight and noon.
The choice of a baby girl reflects another part of the government's attempts to change Indians' family attitudes: promoting fair treatment for infant girls to overcome traditional biases in favor of boys.
The last national census in 1991 said there were 927 women for every 1,000 men in India. Health experts said that reflected a trend in rural and poor areas that gives boys preferential treatment in food and health care. Infanticide of baby girls remains a problem.
The billionth birth was hardly cause for celebration. Since its independence from Britain in 1948, India has tried to curb its exploding population with little success. When it became a nation, India had 300 million people.
''We welcome Astha, but we should also be thinking whether she would get an opportunity for education and health like millions of other children,'' said Mahajan, the government minister. ''Will we be able to get her the resources and the opportunities necessary for her future? This is what we have to think about.''
Projections say that if India does not curtail population growth it will surpass China as the world's most populous nation in 50 years with 1.5 billion people.
The emphasis has changed in the last decade toward educating women, raising their status and providing better health care. Nongovernment organizations tour rural areas distributing condoms and discussing birth control, but sex education is not taught in the schools.
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