Family planning has become the untouchable of Indian politics despite a population growth rate that threatens to overwhelm the country's resources if allowed to continue unchecked.

Tarred by the stigma of hundreds and perhaps thousands of forced sterilizations during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's emergency rule, family planning is virtually ignored now by politicians.

Even the late Sanjay Gandhi, the prime motivator behind the forced sterilizations during his mother's 17 months of emergency rule, gave up on the issue.

"The family planning program will not be a program of our party as long as the people do not want it," he said shortly before his death in a plane crash in June. Although during Gandhi's emergency rule hundreds of thousands of her political opponents were jailed, the press was heavily censored and personal liberties were curtailed, it is the forced sterilizations that are widely credited with playing a decisive role in her defeat by the Janata coalition in March 1977.

The Janata Party, which was defeated by Gandhi's Congress-I (for India) Party in January, gave up completely on family planning and even changed the program's name to family welfare.

Statistics recently compiled by economist R.N. Cassen, showing what has happened to India's family planning program since Gandhi's 1977 defeat, are staggering.

The number of sterilizations, the most widely used form of birth control in India, dropped dramatically after Gandhi's defeat -- not only from the highs during the emergency rule but from the noncoercive family planning campaigns that preceded it.

There were, for instance, 3 million sterilizations in 1973, before the emergency, and 11 million during the almost two years of the emergency. During Janata rule, when sexual self-control was advertised as the best means of birth control, the number of sterilizations dropped to about 400,000.

In the period 1979 to 1980, there were only 1.5 million sterilizations -- less than in 1971 through 1973.

Moreover, other, more traditional means of birth control also suffered. There was a 60 percent drop in the number of interuterine insertions and an 18 percent decrease in the use of other forms of contraception.

As a result, the steady decline in India's birthrate from 35 per thousand in 1974 to 33 per thousand in 1977 is likely to have been reversed.

The plan of reaching a target of 30 births per thousand by last year was quickly dropped.

With as huge a population as India has -- an estimated 667 million people, second only to China with close to 1 billion -- a few digits in a birthrate make an enormous difference.

A birthrate of 33 persons per thousand, for instance, means 2 Indians are born every 3 seconds. Even now, one of every 7 persons in the world is an Indian, and if the birthrate fails to drop that ratio will become 1 to 6.

Family planning, started on a small scale in India three decades ago, has always been faced with a national tradition that calls for large families.

Children are considered a measure of economic wealth for the parents, who put them to work almost as soon as they can walk, and as social security for old age. Boys are considered more valuable than girls, since a bride pays a dowry to the groom's family and moves in with them to become an extra worker. India's high infant death rate also encourages families to have more children because so many of them die before they get to working age.

"That is the basic argument of the poor to rationalize large families," said Rami Chhabra, a feminist and consultant on population programs.

"Children of the poor are economic assets because they do not have a childhood. From the age of six they are forced to work all day. Children are the poor man's economic capital."

She sees India in a "demographic trap" since the population has exploded to the point where the country cannot afford social welfare programs. Yet without them and development there is little incentive for the poor to accept family planning.

"Every political party is to blame for downgrading family planning," she said. "They should all wear sackclothes and ashes."

She blamed the Janata Party for politicizing an issue of vital importance to the nation and suggested that the extent of forced sterilization had been exaggerated for political gain. With an overwhelming majority in the country and no opposition worth considering, she said, Gandhi's Congress-I Party has no reason to fear family planning.

But since Gandhi took office Jan. 4, Chhabra said, "there has been no indication of interest in family planning."

The only recent official sign was the brief recognition in Finance Minister R.R. Venkataraman's budget message that the "family planning program suffered a serious setback in the past three years" and should be revitalized "if an improvement of the living conditions of our people is our goal."

Yet Gandhi has not indicated that family planning has her full political support -- something that Chhabra and others believe is necessary before civil servants pay more than lip service to the program.

"The minute family planning is mentioned," Chhabra said, "bureaucrats back off. This is one issue that must be galvanized politically."

According to demographers, India's future depends on controlling its burgeoning population.

If the growth continues unchecked, India's population is expected to reach the 1 billion mark early in the next century, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit private American organization that studies world population trends.

Before that, said the magazine India Today, the country will be so crowded that every second Indian will have to go without two meals a day.

With a population approaching a billion, India will have to spend $7.5 billion to add 150,000 extra schools, 5,000 more teachers, 10,000 more colleges and 30,000 more lecturers just to meet its education needs.

It will need 50,000 more doctors and 25,000 more nurses just to keep the health level where it is; 11 million added yards of cloth to clothe its population, and 15 million new houses.

But not all Indians accept these demographic facts. Dr. Ashish Bose of the Institute of Economic Growth, for instance, attacks as "propaganda" the Population Reference Bureau estimates that China's population growth will stabilize long before India's.

He regarded the estimate as an attempt by the United States to tell the world that China is succeeding in its family planning program while India is not.

"It is an offshoot of the newfound love that the U.S. has for China," he said.