The past two weeks have seen a sudden surge in political interest in population control in two BJP-ruled states, Assam and the UP, which has sparked speculation on the motives. What differentiates the two chief ministers is that one has just started his mandate while the other is at the end of his mandate.
Population control is basically a good idea and has been so fair since independence. India was the first country in the world to have a national family planning program in 1952. We have had a national population policy for over half a century which has been updated from time to time. The latest policy, introduced in 2000, is rigorously followed. It has paid big dividends with 24 of the 29 states having achieved a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 which is considered the replacement level (no new population growth). The remaining states, commonly referred to as Bimaru states, although lagging behind, are also on track.
In this context, the question arises: what is the provocation for the two CMs to suddenly announce their respective population policies? Either way, keeping the cauldron boiling for community polarization is the likely answer, and likely electoral gains for Yogi Adityanath in the impending election.
The proposed measures suffer from a few essential flaws. First, global experience shows that any constraint in population control is counterproductive. And how can we forget the forced sterilization program of the Emergency Age (1975-77), which provoked a backlash from which the country has still not recovered?
Second, the two-child standard has already shown dire consequences for women in other states, with many facing divorce to prevent disqualification of their husbands from running for office and couples opting for large-scale female feticide. , which further distorts the male-to-female ratio. The sex ratio of children in India is steadily declining, from 945 in 1991 to 918 in 2011.
The Assam CM has expressed concern over the “population explosion” within the state’s Muslim community. He further reiterated that strict population control is the only way forward to ensure community development.
While the statement quoted above may sound alarmist, the government can be credited with taking steps with positive implications. Dedicated sub-committees on a range of issues, from health and education to financial inclusion and women’s empowerment, are part of the plans, which are laudable initiatives. The government’s intention to focus on the education and empowerment of women is a sensible step forward.
However, to focus on a particular minority community to take sole responsibility for population control is an atrocious idea. Setting upper limits on the number of children and linking them to government aid and benefits is questionable, as China is now witnessing. The one-child policy adopted by this country in the 1990s proved disastrous, forcing the country to adopt the two-child standard, and very recently, the three-child standard. China is now responsible for nearly 70 percent of the elderly with less than 30 percent of young people to support them, a consequence that was not anticipated.
On the contrary, India’s voluntary demographic policy is doing very well, having reached the total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1, which translates into a couple “replaced” by two children. In Assam in particular, the TFR fell from 2.2 in 2015 to 1.9 in 2020-2021. So the demographic “explosion” is a scarecrow. The use of modern contraceptive methods by women is highest among Muslim women in Assam, at 49%. The unmet need for contraception is also the highest, at 12.2%. The problem, clearly, is not the uncontrolled increase in population within the community as the government foresees, but the poor delivery of services.
The Population Foundation of India has rightly pointed out that a strict limitation on the number of children, like the two-child norm, would lead to a rapid increase in gender-specific divorces and abortions, which would be very damaging to the future of the nation.
What can we do then? Three vital factors are responsible for high fertility: illiteracy (especially among girls), poverty, and the poor reach of health services. The emphasis CM Sarma places on treating these factors is most appropriate. CM Yogi must imitate this. An internationally recognized principle is that “development is the best contraceptive”. It must precede fertility control and not the other way around.
In relation to Assam, Yogi Adityanath’s 2021-2030 Uttar Pradesh Population Policy did not specifically mention Muslims, although no one doubts that the goal is to keep community hatred on the boil, a winning formula of elections tested and proven.
At first glance, the rationale given and most of the provisions of the bill appear reasonable. It’s the coercive elements, like denial of government jobs and the benefits of government programs, that make it undesirable and counterproductive.
It is noteworthy that despite the triple handicap of the lowest literacy level, extreme poverty and limited access to family planning services, Muslim adoption of family planning has been remarkably high in the country. over the past three decades – faster than Hindus. As a result, the fertility gap between Hindus and Muslims, which was more than one child (1.1 to be precise), fell to 0.48.
According to NFHS-4, in 22 states, the fertility rate of Muslims was lower than that of Hindus in Bihar. If religion was the determining factor, Muslims across the country would have higher fertility. This highlights the fact that socio-economic conditions, rather than religion, influence fertility behavior. The NFHS surveys clearly show that in the so-called BIMARU states, the socio-economic conditions of Hindus and Muslims are lower than in other states.
A relevant question is: don’t Hindus also have more than two children? A backlash cannot be ruled out. In fact, within 24 hours, VHP attacked the policy. Even an NRC-type reaction cannot be ruled out where more Hindus than Muslims have been affected, which has prompted the government to take cover.
Since it is not legally possible for both bills to target a specific religious community, namely Muslims, the wisest thing for Muslims would be not to fall into the trap and start attacking politicians. Rather, they should support three-pronged development plans to tackle their illiteracy, income and service delivery.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 15, 2021 under the title “The Return of a Scarecrow”. The author is the former Chief Electoral Commissioner of India and author of The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India