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I was born in the Uttar Pradesh heartland – Meerut. I remember eating chat on weekend evenings with my nani ma in Sadar Bazar, and then loading up into a rickshaw to get back home. Often, my nani would haggle with the rickshaw driver about the price or the fact that there were too many of us children and that we should take another rickshaw. We felt terrible, and often saw the haggling as a performance.
I think nani was trying to teach us the value of money – and/or of overcrowded rickshaws. As we got older and could handle our own money, we never haggled and generally overpaid for our rides, and sometimes biked the rickshaws so the driver could get a break.
In those days, the mid-1980s of Meerut, come to mind when I think about what the current Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh is trying to achieve. It wants to reduce the number of people that can climb into the metaphorical rickshaw that is Uttar Pradesh, which according to their calculations is overburdened. They are also haggling with the public on the various incentives and disincentives on offer to those who sign up to help reduce the number of people who can get into the rickshaw.
On July 11, 2021 (World Population Day), the office of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath issued a press release. It said, “Increasing population is the root of major problems including inequality prevailing in the society. Population control is the primary condition for the establishment of an advanced society.”
This was in support of a proposed draft UP Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill 2021, which was opened for consultation and feedback until July 19. That is, a Bill that could impact the lives of 241 million people – the population of Uttar Pradesh in 2021 – had been given a 10-day consultation period. Let that sink in before you read the rest of this article.
The proposed Bill plans to incentivise people to have one child – with promotions, tax breaks and public-sector job security. If passed, it will also penalise people with two or more children by denying public subsidies, government jobs and promotions.
Interestingly, the text of the Bill has come under criticism from all sides – including the Hindu right, which believes they need to populate the world with Hindu babies; the progressive left, which has outlined in detail how the Bill is inherently anti-people; feminists, who have expressed concerns around coercive reproductive action against women; and even scholars, who have suggested, with tongue in cheek, that Muslim communities fully support this Bill as a way to stall its larger anti-human-rights framing.
Some 8,500 email responses (and let us not forget who has access to emails and time to respond to them) later, the Bill is now with the state government for consideration. Most responses were in favour, with some suggestions that have since been included in a revised draft – for example, connecting the policy (if it passes) to Aadhaar, more incentives for families below the poverty line, and attaching the children ‘count’ to men instead of women.
If the Bill passes, Uttar Pradesh won’t be alone among India’s states to have attempted such policies. But the legal instrument itself will have the most extensive reach into people’s personal lives by far. Other states that have experimented with population policies have limited their restrictions to the political space (i.e. contesting elections) for parents with more than two children.
This encroachment, by the Uttar Pradesh government into people’s lives, is nothing but window-dressing for a failed government that is coming up for reelection (assembly elections are scheduled for early 2022).
Simply put, the government is attempting to blame the population of Uttar Pradesh for its failures.
For the average voter, who is heavily influenced by social media misinformation campaigns, the narrative will emerge as such:
- The government has been hindered in the last few years to develop and improve the lives of the state’s people – not because it was corrupt and ineffectual but because there were too many people to help.
- Government: “Vote us back in, because now we have created a plan to control the population – the original problem.”
In reality, the population was never really the problem. It was, and is, bad governance.
This narrative, alongside the proposed Bill, also ignores the fact that the population of Uttar Pradesh continues to be on a steady decline, and its urban population’s total fertility rate (TFR) is already 2.1. In rural Uttar Pradesh, the TFR is a bit higher but also declining. If both trends hold, the state will have a TFR of 2.1 by 2030 – irrespective of the Bill.
That is, the Bill intends to install draconian reproductive policies to achieve a TFR that the state is already set to achieve.
In light of these basic facts, the Bill has never been about the population of Uttar Pradesh – but about disenfranchising one set of citizens while convincing the other that the already-disenfranchised are the people holding their development back. Is there a better way to divide people and blame the victims of failed governance policies?
The Bill is not based on scientific research on population policies but on the bigoted ideas it is using to hide a failed government.
I have been studying contraception and population control agendas for 12 years, and I can say there is no country, city or state that has tampered with a population in order to alter the demography that hasn’t also run into serious problems. The consequences of this Bill will include skewed male to female ratios (already close to the tipping point in Uttar Pradesh), and even more restrictions on women, who are already suffering the burden of bad patriarchal governance and the COVID-19 fallout.
This Bill is not the solution to anything – but will likely be the cause of more problems in the state’s future.
We can’t persist with the idea that population hinders development; instead, we need to focus on how development can benefit from the diversity of a population as big as that of Uttar Pradesh. My suggestion to the assembly reviewing the Bill is to focus on the facts of how it is that states really develop.
In conclusion, I’m reminded of how nani ma often recruited a second rickshaw driver to take us home. She didn’t leave any of us behind – and neither should the government of Uttar Pradesh. It should recruit another rickshaw for its people.
Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Science in Society at the Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. She is trained a medical anthropologist and a feminist STS scholar. She tweets at @nayantarapple.