As the sun dawned on Delhi with promises of a bright sunny morning on 11 May 2000, Astha announced her presence to the world with a loud wail. India’s billionth baby was born, marking the culmination of the great baby hunt organised by the Government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Astha’s birth catapulted India to an exclusive club with China as the only other country with a population exceeding 1 billion.
A chaotic reception awaited this cherubic baby as flash bulbs and bright lights exploded in her face. Government officials heaved a sigh of relief; their mission had finally been accomplished. They had spent hours praying that one of the 42,000 babies born that day would be a girl that would go on to become the face of the Government’s population policy. Journalists scrambled to get Astha’s pictures while her parents were pitilessly pushed back, resulting in a clash between the hospital security and the scribes. As Government officials competed on who could make the longest speeches, Astha lay quietly in her crib, unaware of the frenzy her birth had unleashed.
It has been ten years since that euphoric moment; the flashlights are gone, the media circus has vanished and Astha has simply disappeared from public memory. As one drives through the bustling Najafgarh area of Delhi, it seems impossible to locate Astha’s house. At one time, the entire locality had erupted in cheer as the much-celebrated baby had been brought through the streets in an ambulance. Today, not one person can recall where Astha lives. After hours of meandering through tiny alleys, Heera Park Colony finally comes into sight. It is in this cramped locality that Astha lives with her parents and elder brother. A group of women are seen sunning themselves on the porch of a house. On asking if Astha Arora lives here, a woman gets up and replies, “Yes, this is her house and I am her mother Anjana.”
Astha is still in school, with today being her last exam. “Before she left for school today, she told me that she will come back and do nothing at all. Today is the day for fun and relaxation,” smiles Anjana, who runs a beauty parlour in Lokesh Park. With her husband, Ashok, working as a salesman in a nearby shop, Anjana had to take up a job to supplement the family income. “When Astha was born, the Government had promised my husband a permanent job. But that never happened,” she says.
Anjana brings out a huge file she has prepared with all of Astha’s clippings in it. There must be more than a hundred articles in it, describing every single moment of Astha’s birth. “When she was born, there were all kinds of reports being shown on television. My parents, who live in Ajmer, thought that some strange magical baby has been born to me. I had to call them up and explain,” she chortles. Both Anjana and Ashok had absolutely no idea that their baby was going to be the billionth one. “In fact, we didn’t even know what it meant till the doctors came and briefed us,” they say. The duo was simply pleased that they were having a baby girl. “We already had a son, Mayank, and so we wanted a daughter to complete the family. I had picked out the name, Astha, long before she was born,” adds Anjana.
As she regales us with anecdotes and stories, Astha walks in with her brother, Mayank. From a bright-eyed, spirited baby, she has now grown up into a composed and confident young girl. While her brother studies in class VIII, Astha is currently in class IV. “The two of them are inseparable. Mayank was simply ecstatic when she was born,” says Anjana fondly.
As Astha sits close to her mother, it is evident that she has bloomed in the loving atmosphere of this house. With doting parents taking care of her every need and a devoted brother watching out for her, it is no wonder that Astha has grown up to be a cheerful, content child. Ask her what being the billionth baby means to her and she smiles shyly, “It feels nice to be special.” And then almost as an afterthought, she adds, “Though it would have been nice if the Government would have kept the promises it had made at my birth.” For someone so young, Astha surely knows her mind well. “Actually she is a little wary about all this. When she was born, the Government had promised us free education, medical and railway passage for her. But those promises didn’t even last for a month,” explains Anjana.
At the time of her birth, the Confederation of Indian Industries and Punjab National Bank had kept aside Rs 2 lakh as a fixed deposit, through the UNFPA, for her further studies. The LIC had also made out a policy worth Rs 1 lakh for her. “She will get this money only when she turns 18. Till then we have to think about how to fund her education. Right now we have put her in Kamal Public School. If the Government had kept its word about free education, we would have put her in one of the premier schools in Dwarka,” rues Anjana. However, Ashok and Anjana got some respite after her school agreed to waive her tuition fees. “A lot of our relatives ask me why I have to spend money on education. The problem is that all these promises had been made by ministers on television. I have nothing in writing,” says Ashok.
While her parents debate and worry about her education, Astha remains unperturbed by such issues. She has already etched out a glorious future in her mind. “I want to become a teacher or a doctor,” says Astha. She has already started training as a teacher with her aunt who runs tuition classes for children. “Astha is very strict. She can’t tolerate indiscipline and doesn’t hesitate to scold anyone if she thinks they are out of order. Iski toh naak pe gussa chadha rehta hai (she is short tempered),” giggles Anjana. She takes out a copy of the kundli (horoscope) that Allahabad-based astrologer Atish Chandra Rastogi had made for Astha. “He made this of his own volition. In the kundli it is written that she has a strong education line and that she will go on to become one of India’s great leaders,” says Anjana. A smile plays on her lips as she looks at Astha, with fond dreams colouring her eyes. Astha, however, oblivious to her mother’s grandiose plans, can only think of how to make the most of her holidays. “I love maths and I simply adore drawing. Now that my exams are over, I am going to spend all my evenings with my colouring book,” she says. As she waltzes out with her brother and friends, one can’t help but think that this isn’t the last one has heard of the billionth baby. With her self-confidence and her parent’s irrevocable faith in her destiny, surely there are great things planned ahead for her.