There has been a continuous fertility decline among most states in India over the years
We can’t have a sustainable planet without stabilising our population.
It is also no secret that coercive population control policies are not the way to stabilise population. The Narendra Modi government at the Centre was clearly aware of these well-known facts when it told the Supreme Court in December last year that India is unequivocally against forcing family planning on its people and that “international experience shows that any coercion to have a certain number of children is counter-productive and leads to demographic distortions”. In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, in response to a PIL seeking enactment of a law to control population, the health and family welfare ministry referenced the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development 1994, to which India is a signatory, and asserted that the country was unequivocally against coercion in family planning. It noted that the country’s family welfare programme was voluntary in nature.
More than six months down the line, Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the same BJP which calls the shots at the Centre, is singing a totally different tune. It has come up with a new population policy for 2021-2030 and wishes to bring in a law that would debar those with more than two children from contesting in local polls, prevent them from applying for or getting promotion in government jobs, and get various government subsidies. The proposed law also says that “it shall be the duty of the government to introduce a compulsory subject relating to population control in all secondary schools”.
Unsurprisingly, the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill 2021, which is open for suggestions from the public till July 19, has kicked up a storm.
The proposed law offers a slew of incentives to public servants who adopt the two-child norm such as two additional increments during their entire service, maternity or as the case may be, paternity leave of 12 months, with full salary and allowances.
All this is being done, the UP government argues, because there are “limited ecological and economic resources at hand” in the state and “it is necessary and urgent that the provision of basic necessities of human life, including affordable food, safe drinking water, decent housing, access to quality education, economic/livelihood opportunities, power/electricity for domestic consumption, and a secure living is accessible to all citizens”.
The state wants to bring down its gross fertility rate from 2.7 (at present) to 2.1 by 2026, and to 1.9 by 2030.
No one can have any quarrel with the idea of any state government wanting to provide basic necessities to its people. But where is the evidence to show that coercive measures help stabilise population in the long run, especially in democracies? Why is “population control” and “population balance” becoming the talking points instead of the real issues that need to be addressed so that the state can deliver the basics to its people.
There has been a continuous fertility decline among most states in India over the years. States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have succeeded in sharply reducing their total fertility rate, have done so by focusing on female literacy, women’s education, increasing age of marriage and overall human development. This is also true for other countries in the neighbourhood which have successfully stabilised their population.
There is a wealth of evidence that suggest that women with no, or low education, have higher fertility as compared to women with higher levels of education. India’s country-wide female literacy rate is 70.3 per cent, while the male literacy rate is estimated at around 84.7 per cent, going by a nationwide study by the National Statistical Office from July 2017 to June 2018. But a bunch of states, including UP, trail behind the national average when it comes to female literacy. Female literacy rate in Uttar Pradesh was pegged at 63.4 per cent, while male literacy in the state is around 81.8 per cent.
If a state wishes to stabilise its population, it could start with focusing its political energy on improving female literacy and other development indicators. Health activists are pointing out that states which have a dismal record in infant mortality, where institutional births are fewer, and where female illiteracy is high have a much higher birth rate than others.
The government’s own surveys show that women in the lowest wealth quintile, and the least educated women, had on an average one more child than those with more than 12 years of schooling and in the highest wealth quintile.
The total fertility rate (TFR) in the country as a whole is coming down —19 out of 22 states now have a below-replacement fertility which means women in these states have less than two children. In UP too, the fertility rate is on a downward trajectory — it nearly halved from 4.82 in 1993 to 2.7 in 2016.
Political observers say the draft bill is less about population stabilisation and more about the politics of perception. Irrespective of whether it becomes a law or not, it is already being seen as a marker of muscular Hindutva that will keep the minorities in their place. With Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections inching closer, this could help consolidate the BJP’s support base in the state.
As Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics, Ashoka University, said in a recent commentary: “The unstated, or often stated, argument is that ‘certain communities’ have too many children.” This stokes baseless majoritarian fears.
Of course, Uttar Pradesh isn’t alone in believing in the power of the stick. Assam, also a BJP-ruled state, is debating a population control policy. Gujarat, another BJP state, says it plans to study the new population control laws in other states. In Gujarat, those with more than two children cannot contest local body polls.
Many states have experimented with the two-child policy in one form or another over the years. But they aren’t uniform, and it’s hard to quantify their impact. Population experts say coercive population policies can do harm — worsen the child sex ratio, malnutrition, etc — and should be avoided at all costs.
It’s critical that we keep the fundamentals on the front-burner. The Uttar Pradesh government headed by Yogi Adityanath acknowledges that illiteracy and poverty can slow down population stabilisation. Women with no schooling have a higher fertility rate in UP, as in other states.
There’s an urgent need to act on the “why” in these areas, and not population control through coercion, if the goal is sustainable and inclusive development.