Representative: A group of people walking down a street in Kolkata, July 2017. Photo: Koushik Das/Unsplash
New Delhi: In an attempt to reduce its population, Uttar Pradesh, the most heavily populated state in India with over 200 million people, on July 11 released a new draft population policy. Those with more than two children will be barred from applying for government jobs, seeking promotions in them or benefiting from government subsidies, the policy said.
Experts, research studies and previous data indicate that the new policy to control the population may not have the desired effect. Instead, it could lead to a host of unintended consequences – including a rise in female foeticide, unsafe abortions leading to the woman’s death or poor health, or women having lower agency over their own bodies.
India has one of the highest rates of female foeticide in the world. The government has been making efforts to sensitise the population against this – but data indicates that this practice is still rampant.
Alaka Basu, a sociologist, demographer and professor of development sociology at Cornell University, believes that the Bill is “misguided” in its interpretation of the impact of these population control measures and on its understanding of the links between population and development.
This could have an adverse impact on women’s health, among other things. “There are negative possibilities like a rise in sex-selective abortions, unwanted interventions on women’s bodies, and selective targeting of groups,” Basu said.
The policy document, unveiled by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath on World Population Day, says it is aimed at controlling the increasing population as well as at creating a “population balance” between different communities.
This talk of a “population balance” is, according to Basu, a dangerous sign that the policy could be used “selectively to further a larger agenda as well to favour or punish different categories of people.”
In a statement, Adityanath said that overpopulation is the “root cause” of many major issues, including inequality.
According to UN projections, India will soon surpass China to become the world’s most populous country, with nearly 1.5 billion people.
Close to 812 million Indians (roughly 60% of the population) still live below the poverty line, without access to basic resources such as food and shelter.
And with the COVID-19 pandemic, lost jobs (mainly in the informal sector) and inadequate government support, India could be pushed back a decade in its poverty eradication efforts, projections based on a recent analysis by researchers at the UN University show.
Problem with penalties
In the first draft of the proposed population control Bill, released by the Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission on July 9, the state proposed perks for government employees that followed the two-child policy, including additional increments at work, subsidies in purchase of plots or horses, rebates on utility charges and a 3% increase of their Employee Provident Fund.
For those who followed the two-child policy but were not in government service, the draft proposed rebates on water, electricity bills, house taxes and home loans.
Those with only one child and couples that got sterilised would be eligible for more benefits, including free healthcare and education for their child until the age of 20.
Families with more than two children faced penalties. They would be barred from contesting local body elections and applying for government jobs, and would be denied subsidies and welfare schemes offered by the government.
These penalties worry Perianayagam Arokiasamy, a former head of the department of development studies, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.
“De-incentivisation, such as taking away subsidies, will only focus on a very small portion of people. Only a small percentage of people get subsidies,” he told The Wire.
According to him, it is also unfair to bar poor people from government schemes for having more than two children. “Sometimes, it is due to extreme poverty, lack of awareness or the inability to afford contraceptives or abortion that people have more kids,” he said. “They are already suffering, and they will suffer even more if their subsidies are taken away.”
This “negative model of punishing those who have more than two children with consequences is like the China model, and China is not a democratic country.”
China had abrogated its decades-old ‘one-child policy’ in 2016 after the national sex ratio plummeted, reducing the size of the productive workforce and heralding an ageing society.
“The strategy has to be choice-based, so that people voluntarily decide to have fewer children because of access to education or maybe by giving them positive incentives,” Arokiasamy said.
A danger for the girl child
Instead, according to Arokiasamy, a better way to deal with population control measures is to have a more efficient healthcare system, access to contraception and more awareness among people.
In their 2017 paper, entitled ‘Democracy and Demography: Societal Effects of Fertility Limits on Local Leaders’, economists Abhishek Chakravarty and S. Anukriti said population control measures could worsen the sex ratio at birth – exacerbated by Indian society’s preference for male children.
The paper, written after the duo studied rural couples in several states, found that “the already male-biased sex ratio at birth in castes with strong son preference” increased after fertility limits were imposed.
Anukriti is an economist at the World Bank Research Group who studies gender issues in developing countries. Chakravarty is a development economist and assistant professor at the University of Manchester.
Amit Mohan Prasad, the additional chief secretary (medical, health and family welfare) of Uttar Pradesh, had previously said the proposed population policy had been drafted based on several reports, including the National Family Health Survey’s (NFHS) findings for the state.
However, NFHS 2015-16 data suggests families may stop having more children once a boy is born.
In a 2010 paper entitled ‘The “Missing Girls” of China and the Unintended Consequences of the One Child Policy’, environmental economist Avraham Ebesein drew a connection between China’s “missing girls” phenomenon and enforcement of the one-child policy.
Experts have traced the falling proportion of women in China to two factors: cultural influences and government policy.
Who is to say this won’t happen in India, too?
Does India have a population problem?
In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appealed to Indians to have small families during his Independence Day speech from the Red Fort.
He called it a form of “patriotism”.
The numbers indicate that the country has made gradual progress in curbing its fertility rates. India’s total fertility rate – the average number of children that will be born to each child-bearing woman – dropped significantly in 70 years, going from 5.6 births in 1950 to 2.14 in 2017.
In addition, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha and Assam already have a two-child policy in some form. A 2005 study of five states found a rise in unsafe, sex-selective abortions (female foeticide), men alienating their wives or divorcing them, and giving up children for adoption with the intent to contest polls.
But in South India, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have reported remarkable drops in their total fertility rates with no such policies in place. Instead, they have focused on education and awareness.
And third, experts have already reported that India’s population might shrink to one billion due to a decline in fertility rates over the next 80 years.
Even former Union health minister Harsh Vardhan has said in February that by 2035, Indian women’s fertility rate is expected to decline from 2.37 to 1.73.
Uttar Pradesh’s fertility rate itself went from 4.82 in 1993 to almost half that – 2.7 – in 2016, according to government data. It is expected to touch 2.1 by 2025.
Opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh have raised some important questions. The Samajwadi Party (SP) has called the population control policy “election propaganda” – in view of the impending assembly polls in the state – as have political analysts.
Congress’s Salman Khurshid has said politicians should declare the number of children they have. As it happens, data on the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly website suggests more than 50% of MLAs in the UP assembly – where the BJP holds 304 of 403 seats – have more than two children. More than half of the BJP MLAs have three or more children.
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati said Adityanath’s move has been motivated only by the elections. According to her, the government should have started “spreading awareness among people immediately after forming the government” if it was serious about managing the population.
She also alleged that the BJP was trying to cover up its failure to provide jobs and education, instead punting the problem onto the people.
A communal agenda?
Indeed, there appears to be growing consensus among the BJP-ruled states of Assam, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh on this subject, suggesting a national plan is in the works.
In August 2018, 125 MPs had written to the president asking for a two-child norm in the country. A year later, MP Rakesh Sinha, who heads a RSS-affiliated think-tank, introduced a private member’s ‘Population Regulation Bill’ in Parliament.
In 2020, Anil Desai, a Rajya Sabha member affiliated with the Shiv Sena, proposed to amend Article 47A of the Indian Constitution to include provisions similar to the one in Adityanath’s draft Bill.
The Bill is also aligned with the party’s wider narrative – that Hindus are in danger, a.k.a. “Hindu khatre me hai”. Party-members invoke this line during election campaigns to galvanise the support of majority Hindu communities, although the idea that Hindus are threatened has dug its nails deeper.
For example, Vijaykant Chauhan, who works to prevent inter-religious marriages in Uttar Pradesh and claims to be a non-political person, told The Wire that Muslims in India are part of an “international ploy” to slowly “take over” the Hindu population and “turn them into minorities”.
However, Nayantara Sheoran Appleton, senior lecturer at the Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington, wrote for The Wire Science that:
“… 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. However, the TFR among Muslims is falling rapidly, faster than it is among Hindus.”
During the communal violence in Delhi in February 2020, some rioters created a WhatsApp group to target and attack Muslims in the area. The group was flooded with hateful and communal messages, and its members also forwarded messages implying Hindus are endangered by a “growing” Muslim population.
One message said that between 1947 and 2017, the population of Muslims in India had become “ten times more” and that in the next 70 years, it would become almost 300 crore. After this, the message continued, Hindus would have to “seek refuge” like Kashmiri Pandits, à la the exodus.
Giriraj Singh, who recently took charge of the Union ministry of rural development and panchayati raj, said an increasing population – especially that of Muslims – “is a threat to the social fabric, social harmony, and development of the country.”
Rajasthan BJP MLA Bhanwari Lal had said that “Muslims are worried about … how to take over the nation by increasing their population.”
Former chief election commissioner of India S.Y. Quraishi countered this narrative in his 2021 book The Population Myth. Echoing Appleton, the book argued with hard data that Muslims could never outnumber Hindus.
Quraishi told The Wire that Uttar Pradesh’s policy is really aimed at reviving a “fake”, “highly exaggerated” narrative of the Hindu community being in danger from a supposedly burgeoning Muslim population.
“Population control in itself is not a bad idea, but it should have been done 30 years ago,” he said. “Now that India is already doing much better in terms of family planning and is close to reaching stability, bringing this policy seems to be for purely electoral gains.”
According to him, the policy could legitimise the “Hindu khatre me hai” narrative and polarise observers. “It is not a ‘Hindu versus Muslim’ issue at all,” he said. “The truth is, both communities are backward according to indicators of … family-planning.”
These are, Quraishi explained, literacy level, family income and access to family planning services. And government data “easily busts the myth that the Muslim community has more children than the Hindu community. However, due to high poverty among Muslims, there is a slight problem.”
In effect, the government – far from addressing poverty among Muslims – is simply furthering the economic boycott of Muslims by the “Hindutva ecosystem”.