'Population Explosion': The Myth that Refuses to Go

Even more dangerously, demographically driven population regulation measures, ignore women's rights over their own bodies.

The spectre of population control has emerged to haunt us yet again. The Prime Minister of India, in his Independence Day speech on the August 15, expressed concern about “population explosion creating various problems for the coming generations” and complemented those who “follow the policy of the small family” as contributing to the development of the country, commending it as a form of patriotism.

In the past too, “population explosion” has been perceived and articulated as a primary cause of poverty, unemployment, ill-health, lack of education, environmental degradation, climate change and even traffic jams in cities.  

The bogey of “population explosion” has, over the past 73 years, held sway in the country with successive governments having consistently deployed it to impose incentives or disincentives across sectors – from local governance, to health care, education, agriculture, and so on – for those who do or do not adhere to the two child norm respectively.

Also read: Modi and the Bogey of ‘Population Explosion’

Over 30 private member Bills regarding population control introduced in parliament since Independence – both lapsed and some pending since – are evidence of this.

MP Rakesh Sinha. Photo: Twiiter/@RakeshSinha01

Very recently, on July 12, 2019, MP Rakesh Sinha, tabled ‘The Population Regulation Bill’ in the Rajya Sabha. The Bill stipulates several incentives for families that have no more than two children. These include income tax rebates and free healthcare for parents, subsidies and loans for plots and houses. The Bill identifies penalties for contravening the norm, including reduced access to the public distribution system (PDS), higher interest rates on loans, lower interest on savings and disqualification from being an elected representative.

The Bill also suggests that government employees should give an undertaking that they will not have more than two children. In fact, in 2016, the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment (ironically), had announced in the context of scholarship for students (from marginalised communities) that “not more than two children of the same parents or guardians will be eligible”.

The propagation of the image of “population explosion” has led to the development of a “crisis mentality” that has generated extreme and narrow demographic assertions, challenged the entitlements of people (such as subsidised food grains through the PDS) and more recently, questioned their patriotism which will impact particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised sections. 

The state has often presumed that it has done enough for the people and that the State’s provisioning of health care, education and food is adequate. The frequent refrain is that the existence of poverty, unemployment, under-nutrition, poor access to education and health care, etc., are because of the “uncontrolled” population growth, despite the State’s initiatives.

However, these references to “population explosion” and the need for ‘‘population control” or “stabilisation” completely ignore the emerging evidence that the total fertility rate (TFR) in the country is already down to 2.2 as of 2015-16, marginally above the 2.1 replacement rate, in almost 24 states. According to NFHS 4, the Desired Fertility Rate is 1.8, which clearly indicates that women prefer to have no more than two children.

Further, the 2011 Census data also showed that the decadal growth rate had reduced to 17.7% from 21.5% over 2001. Despite these shifts, population is expected to grow for a period of time due to the phenomenon of Population Momentum” as a “higher number of couples now have fewer children” compared to the earlier situation of fewer couples having more children.

Also read: Economic Survey Predicts Sharp Slowdown in Population Growth Over Next Two Decades

The prevailing anxieties about the population, however exaggerated, have been the underpinnings for many top-down, target-driven, often coercive and occasionally violent, population control programmes. During the Emergency (1975-77), mass sterilisation was vigorously pursued by the state, and all developmental efforts were subordinated to the population control programme. 

Women, particularly from marginalised sections, have been the targets for the achievement of demographic goals. Women’s bodies have been central to the population rhetoric, which portrays them as responsible; control of women’s fertility and violation of women’s bodies have remained the state’s obsession in “controlling” population. Access to contraception or family planning as it is popularly known, is primarily seen as an instrument of population control, not as a reproductive right.

Further, sterilisation, permanent contraception and other invasive measures are primarily forced on women, with limited efforts to enhance male responsibility and acceptance of contraception.  

The sterilisation camp deaths at Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh on November 8, 2014, where surgeries were performed in complete violation of all standard operating procedures, and subsequent events amounted to serious violation of some very basic health rights of the affected women. Eighty-three women – predominantly from Dalit, tribal, and Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities – underwent sterilisation and more than a dozen women succumbed to death post-surgery. 

This tragedy reflected the “malaise of the public health system” but was also an “emphatic and sad reminder of the state’s preoccupation with population control and targets”. 

Women’s groups, women activists and researchers have repeatedly denounced the two-child norm in all its avatars as both anti-women and anti-poor, as they adversely affect both democratic and reproductive rights of women, who are at the receiving end. They have argued that the imposition of the norm and the disincentives will disproportionately impact women from Dalits, Adivasi and religious minority communities.

The iteration of population growth as a primary cause of India’s economic and other social problems is to distract the country from the failure of India’s development model. Photo: Neha Singh/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

These are women who are already deprived and would bear the brunt of the State’s withdrawal of ameliorative measures, even if these are pitiably inadequate. 

Several studies on the impact of the two child norm have highlighted sex selection, increased discrimination against the girl child, and worsening of the already declining sex ratio.  According to these studies, there has been a drop in sex ratio after the inception of two child norm. This is particularly of serious concern given the strong son-preference in society. 

Even when the husbands in Panchayati Raj institutions were faced with the threat of disqualification, it was the women or wives who bore the brunt of this discriminatory policy through desertion or abandonment, divorce, forced abortion, forced adoption etc., despite not having had any say or decision in the matter of family size or in the holding of political power. 

Also read: Civil Society Slams Renewed Push for ‘Two-Child’ Norm in Rajya Sabha

Moreover, the demographically driven population control policies and programmes legitimise the control of women’s bodies and fertility ignoring promotion of women’s health rights, including access to quality health information and care including maternal health, reproductive choices with safe and quality contraception. These policies treat women as objects of control and surveillance, and violate the basic feminist tenets of reproductive and sexual rights and bodily integrity. 

The iteration of population growth as a primary cause of India’s economic and other social problems is to distract the country from the failure of India’s development model adopted since Independence that is responsible for the severe economic and other crises, whose outcomes are characterised by growing inequities, mal-development, poverty and ill health. Further, the unnecessary focus on ‘controlling population’, and coercive two child norm policies to address it, are nothing short of gross violation of the human rights of the people, especially women of the country. It violates the right to equality guaranteed to all citizens of the country under Article 14 of the constitution of India. 

The government must not enact policies in contravention of the principles laid down in the National Population Policy that require a focus on the well-being of people by providing opportunities and choices to all in every sphere – health (including maternal, neonatal and child), safe and quality contraception, education, food, housing, political and economic opportunities and others that can effectively and automatically bring about a decline in the fertility rate.

Sarojini Nadimpally is the co-convenor, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, and has researched on two-child norm and its impact on PRI’s extensively.