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World population conference in Delhi warns the planet faces ecological disaster and widespread starvation unless zero population growth is achieved within a generation

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: A conference of more than 100 international population experts meeting in Delhi, has warned that the planet faces ecological disaster and widespread starvation unless its population is stabilised within a generation. There was also a dire warning for Australia. Delegates to the conference set out the aim of zero population growth within the lifetime of children born now. This report from the BBC's South Asia correspondent, David Loyn.

DAVID LOYN: A patient registers for sterilisation in a Marie Stopes clinic in Delhi. Mira has four children and has decided enough is enough.

MIRA: I'm happy because four children are enough. My husband and I have agreed to do this. Our neighbours said there was nothing to fear, and so I came here.

DAVID LOYN: The population of India has doubled in a generation and is expected to top 1,000 million people by 2020 - an appropriate setting for leading world scientists to meet to bring together research into the impact of population growth on the planet, and this time they insist they're not crying wolf.

NORMAN MEYERS: It's due to two factors, principally. One is overpopulation in the South - sheer pressure of human numbers on tropical forests, on grasslands and so on; and over-consumption, wasteful lifestyles in the rich industrialised nations of the north.

DAVID LOYN: Dr Norman Meyers, an independent scientist. The idea for the conference came in the run-up to the Earth Summit in Rio last year. The Royal Society and the American Academy of Sciences issued a statement then saying that unless population growth could be brought under control, there would be no way of stopping damage to the environment and poverty would continue in much of the world. The new approach links development, education, health and sex issues.

NORMAN MEYERS: Unless we safeguard the environmental underpinnings of our economies, then the economies of the developing world aren't going to advance, and unless they do advance we shan't get rid of runaway population growth. The biggest families are produced by the poorest people. There's enormous evidence. And when a country does achieve some economic advancement, then the fertility rate plunges.

DAVID LOYN: The final statement has a target of zero population growth within the lifetime of our children, calling on a UN population summit next year to take incisive action. Professor Roger Short, from Monash University in Australia, says that the developed world can't afford to ignore this issue. He points to the potential crisis facing Indonesia, his neighbour to the north, the fourth largest country in the world with a population which will grow from 185 to 230 million during the next 20 years.

ROGER SHORT: The rainforest in Java and Sumatra will go. If the rainforest goes, the top soil will be washed into the sea, and what do you do with 230 million refugees who are ecological refugees from a denuded habitat. And we're beginning to think in Australia that we need to help Indonesia now, immediately, with its excellent family planning programs, otherwise Australia will cease to exist.

DAVID LOYN: The conference also heard of obstacles to progress. Dr Fred Sy of the International Planned Parenthood Federation said that the proportion of the American aid budget earmarked for population control had actually declined under Presidents Reagan and Bush. He blamed governments in some developing countries for not moving fast enough, and religious leaders, particularly the Pope.

FRED SY: When they are not educated, they tend to accept leadership from the authority figures, particularly the authority figures related to God. And in terms of the Catholic Church that stands against contraception is something which is very, very difficult to understand and which is harming family planning programs in many developing countries, certainly in many parts of Africa.

DAVID LOYN: A health and sex education class in Delhi where these are matters of life and death, in a country where reliable figures for HIV and AIDS are hard to come by, but the disease is certainly spreading. The scientists say that humanity is reaching a crisis point with respect to the interlocking issues of population, environment and development.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: That report from the BBC's David Loyn.