Parliament House. Photo: Reuters.
In July 2019, a ‘Population Regulation Bill‘ was put forward in Parliament, calling for action against people with more than two living children. The private member’s Bill was introduced by MP Rakesh Sinha, a founding member of India Policy Foundation, an RSS-affiliated non-profit think tank. While the Bill is still pending, 11 months earlier, 125 MPs had written to the president in August 2018 asking for the implementation of a two-child norm.
Previous governments have trained a focus on population as a problem for development as well; most people who grew up in the 1980s might remember the ‘hum do, hamare do‘1 advertising campaigns. This new Bill is different because it has the potential to systematically alter India’s social fabric itself.
If passed, the Bill will render ordinary the otherwise extraordinary position of systemic exclusion. It will allow the government to stand aside as children and their parents die – for lack of food, healthcare or other protections. The proposed Bill states that people with more than two children will receive fewer government services (as decided by states). This includes money and limited benefits under the public distribution system, even for those at the bottom of India’s socio-economic strata. It also proposes that those with more than two children be disqualified from standing for elections to public office. New government employees will have to agree to not have more than two children. The Bill privileges access to public education, healthcare facilities and insurance to families with fewer than two children.
In effect, the proposed text offers to perpetuate a longstanding anxiety around India’s population growth, but takes on a particularly dangerous turn by attaching reproductive lives and children to direct exclusion from the polity. Inspired by this Bill, in February 2020, Anil Desai, a Shiv Sena member of the Rajya Sabha, introduced a proposal to amend Article 47A of the Indian Constitution to include:
The State shall promote small family norms by offering incentives in taxes, employment, education etc. to its people who keep their family limited to two children and shall withdraw every concession from and deprive such incentives to those not adhering to small family norm, to keep the growing population under control.
The original Article 47 of the 1947 Constitution reads:
Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.
This proposed change fans concerns supported not by scientific evidence but by political theatre. In his Independence Day speech in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “We need to worry about the population explosion” as it was detrimental to “development.” He referred to those with small families as “responsible citizens,” thus deeming all others irresponsible. The floodgates have thus been opened.
However, as of data until August 2019, India had no contemporary ‘population explosion’. Instead, the trend was in the opposite direction. Indian women had a total fertility rate2 (TFR) of almost 6 in 1960, and the number fell to 2.2 by 2018. According to the 2018-2019 Economic Survey (chapter 7), India’s population grew 1.3% a year from 2011 to 2016, down from 2.5% a year from 1971 to 1981. The TFR was 2.2 in 2017 – close to the replacement level fertility of 2.1. The survey estimated the TFR in 2021 could be 1.8.
Considering a demographic shift has already occurred and is intensifying, the Bill will only further marginalise the already marginalised.
For example, the idea of a ‘population explosion’ lends credence to the country’s already surging anti-Muslim sentiment. This in turn has been erected on false concerns that the population of Muslims in India is quickly outpacing those of Hindus, fanned by communal statements by prominent political leaders, like BJP MP Giriraj Singh. However, the TFR among Muslims is falling rapidly, faster than it is among Hindus.
This said, the biggest victims of the Bill will be Indian women in general, of this generation as well as of many to come. Many women already can’t choose to refuse marriage or to reproduce, and are forced to undergo non-voluntary birth control measures. These ‘habits’ will only intensify under a law that passively legitimise such actions, including forced sterilisation, IUD insertion and use of hormonal contraceptives (even when they may be medically inadvisable). Female infanticide will also likely worsen, from the current skew of 909 female births per 1,000 male births. In effect, the Bill will ensure the continued marginalisation and erasure of women from public life.
As we come to terms with COVID-19 and the systemic problems it is revealing in our medical, economic, social and cultural systems, we need to take stock of how we imagine a post-COVID-19 India. Increased spending on public health – and not bills that punish people for crimes they didn’t commit – will safeguard women’s rights and contribute to a healthy population. Instead of population control Bills, India should consider a ‘population investment bill’ that takes the health, wellbeing and education of its citizens seriously.
Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Science in Society, at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand. She is trained a medical anthropologist and a feminist STS scholar. She tweets at @nayantarapple.