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A hundred years ago back in India, from 1921 onwards, the population started increasing and continues to do so. Therefore, 1921 was described as a ‘demographic divide’. The centenary of the year of the demographic divide is marked by a sharp decline in the decadal growth of population for 2001 and 2011 in relation to the decade covering the period from 1991 to 2001. Such a decline has taken place for the first time in 100 years and is attributed to several measures, chief among which is the Government of India’s official population control policy formulated in the early 1950s.
In fact, India became the first country in the world to have done so. Other key measures which immensely contributed to the decline of the population growth rate are better women’s education, greater stress on women’s empowerment and gender equality even though a lot needs to be achieved in this regard, widespread and voluntary adoption of family planning measures, and above all, greater consciousness among people to limit their families by freely exercising their choices without being coerced by the state to do so. The force employed during emergency to sterilise people for reducing population was counterproductive and resulted in people’s disapproval of that approach.
In fact during the freedom struggle in the 1940s, Jawaharlal Nehru reflected on population explosion, almost two decades after 1921 was declared as the year of democratic divide. He outlined his insights on population growth in India and falling birth rates in some of the advanced countries of Europe after those registered better human development indices following access of their people to education, improved standards of living and freedom to make reasoned choices.
In his book Discovery of India, Nehru devoted a separate chapter “The Problem of Population, Falling Birth-Rates and National Decay”. While noting, “India, far from needing a bigger population, would be better off with fewer people” observed “…disease-ridden and insufficiently-fed communities, as in India, still reproduce themselves at a prodigious rate.” He thus traced the rise in India’s population to social and economic factors.
Instructively, he reflected on falling birth rates in some countries by ascribing it to several social and economic causes such as increasing use of contraceptives, the desire to have small regulated families, postponement of marriages in the West and economic factors. It is indeed tragic that such nuanced understanding on population issue free from communal overtones and embodied in the official policy of the Government of India since the formative stages of nation building is being abandoned by recent policies adopted by several states and pronouncements in this regard by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who overtly gave a communal twist to it.
While Adityanath stressed that bringing about balance among different communities remained one of the objectives of population policy of his government, Sarma openly targeted the Muslim community by saying that two-child policy could be the only way to eradicate poverty and illiteracy among the state’s Muslim minority.
On World Population Day on July 11, 2021, Adityanath announced the new population policy of the state for the decade 2021-30. While announcing its objectives, he said among others, it aims at “reducing the fertility rate and ensuring population balance among various communities”. This communal angle of the policy smacks of its divisive and polarising content which in the recent years have been insidiously manifested in the “love jihad” legislation targeting interfaith marriages and Yogi’s intimidating statements, one of which was that he would take revenge against anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters who launched massive movements against the communally discriminatory CAA.
Added to this, a communally charged population policy is the proposed legislation. The Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021, sets out unmistakable punitive measures as part of the draft law to enforce two-child norm for limiting family size and controlling population. The prescribed punitive measures mandate that failure on the part of people to adhere to the two-child policy norm would make them ineligible, among others, to contest local body elections, apply for government jobs and receive any kind of subsidy.
The draft legislation has been put in public domain for seeking opinion and inputs from people, experts and all stakeholders. Assam chief minister also aims at providing similar penal measures for imposing two-child policy on people.
It is indeed obnoxious that such policies which aim at controlling fertility and negate reproductive rights are being talked about and framed. Increase or decrease of fertility rate and population is closely dependent on a host of factors including women’s access to education, their empowerment and equality. A section of people regardless of their religious, caste or any other identities have more children and large families because they are poor, remain deprived of education and other entitlements, which are essential for a decent and dignified living. That was why Nehru had written in the 1940s that “…disease-ridden and insufficiently fed communities, as in India, still reproduce themselves at a prodigious rate.”
The International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994 adopted a programme of action to which India is a signatory. That conference adopted that “development is the best contraceptive” and took an unequivocal stand against coercive approach to family planning. It has become the motive force for framing policies to deal with population issues.
Professor Amartya Sen in his 1994 article Population Policy: Authoritarianism Versus Cooperation persuasively argued that while Kerala’s fertility rate declined from 3 in 1979 to 1.8 in 1991 by promoting literacy among women, China’s fertility rate for the same period changed from 2.8 to 2.0 in spite of adopting a coercive one-child policy. China realised the futility of the policy and subsequently abandoned it. He, therefore, advocated for better female education, greater participation of women in productive employment, and greater autonomy and empowerment of women which can lower fertility rates more effectively than authoritarian methods.
It is the same approach which is reflected in the policy adopted by the Government of India. It is instructive to note that in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on February 13, 2020 in response to a PIL filed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ashwani Kumar Upadhyay seeking for enactment of law to control population and enforce family planning, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stated, “The family welfare programme in India is voluntary in nature which enables couples to decide the size of their family and of the family planning methods, best suited to them…In fact, international experience shows that any coercion to have a certain number of children is counterproductive and leads to demographic distortions.”
The regimes of Adityanath and Sarma in conceiving and contemplating coercive family planning policies are clearly negating categorical assertion of the Government of India which through its avowed policy objectives and international commitments is committed to persuasive approach to population control based on voluntary adoption of practices by people.
It is worth noting that the population policy based on persuasion has resulted in consistent reduction of total fertility rate. The aforementioned affidavit of the Government of India has documented that as against the stated goal of achieving fertility rate of 1.8. The actual fertility rate is 2.2.
It is indicative of people’s preference for small families with just two children. It is further evidenced from the fact that “25 out of 36 states and Union territories have already achieved the replacement level fertility of 2.1 or less”. The decline of population, as recorded in the affidavit is revealing. It says that “census 2001-2011 is the first to decide in the last hundred years, the country has not only added lesser population as compared to the previous one but also registered the sharpest decline in the decadal growth rate from 21.54% in 1991 to 2001 to 17.64% in 2001 to 2011.”
The continuation of this trend would result in further decline in decadal growth of population. What is needed is improvement in the social, educational and economic conditions of people regardless of faiths they pursue.
A faith-based population policy as announced by Yogi and Sarma is detrimental to the national policy which is based on the legacy of freedom struggle, domestic consensus and international commitments. Two-child norm and population policy with a subtext to target minorities, women, poor, SCs, STs and OBCs is bound to assail reproductive rights in the garb of reducing fertility. Such a policy is anti- women, anti-poor, anti-minority, anti-Dalit and anti-tribes and above all rights enshrined in the Constitution. It is these categories of people who have higher fertility rates on account of their highly disadvantaged social and economic status and standing. Such authoritarian population policies would deprive them of jobs and even food under the Food Security Act.
Prime Minister Modi, who on several occasions has glowingly talked about the possible demographic dividend India is poised to achieve primarily because of its huge population of which the youth component is substantial, is silent on such population policies of Yogi and Sarma which targets the poor, women, minorities and other deprived sections and builds a narrative that population is a “burden” and not an asset.
Amartya Sen in his article mentioned above presciently wrote that “Advocacy of coercion, in different forms, has been growing in India, it is important to emphasise that it achieves little and destroys a lot.”
These authoritarian and dictatorial population policies have multiplied during the seven years of the Modi regime. These have destroyed a lot and negated many other accomplishments achieved through persuasive, deliberative and consultative processes. The only method to counter such divisive, polarising and anti-people policies is to follow Ambedkar’s electrifying words: Educate, Agitate and Organise.
S.N. Sahu served as OSD and press secretary to former President of India, K.R. Narayanan.