Population control: a mistaken solution to an imaginary problem?

In recent times, the discourse around coercive population policies has gained momentum in the country. These laws prevent people from receiving government grants and other benefits or running for political office if they have more than two children. While the central government disavows coercion and does not impose a two-child policy, in recent weeks Uttar Pradesh and Assam have moved in this direction. The bill proposed by the UP Law Commission on July 7, 2021 requires couples to limit their families through a series of inducements and disincentives.

The two-child norm is inspired by the Chinese experience. China had a one-child policy as state law for 35 years until the country was forced to lift it in 2015 as rapidly declining fertility risked significantly undermining its economic growth. future and a significant imbalance between males and females at birth. It was followed by a two-child policy which did little to alleviate the problems. This policy was lifted in 2021, when the Chinese government announced that it would allow all families to have up to three children.

China now finds itself in the midst of a demographic crisis. He is currently trying to cope with changing demographics – a growing burden from an aging population and a shrinking workforce, while encouraging young people to have more children. China’s aging population represents a crisis because its arrival is imminent and inevitable, because its ramifications are enormous and long-lasting, and because its effects will be difficult to reverse. India must learn from China’s failed experiment in enforcing coercive population policies.

India was the first country in the world to institute a national family planning program in 1952. India is a signatory to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Program of Action which commits adopt a voluntary, non-targeted approach to family planning. . Furthermore, the National Population Policy 2000 clearly sets out a non-coercive strategy. This strategy is echoed in Uttar Pradesh’s own Population Policy 2021-2030, a document which was released on July 11, 2021 – the same day the Population Control Bill for the state was also released. been presented.

All available evidence shows that a targetless approach that promotes women’s empowerment, health and education has been successful in reducing fertility rates and stabilizing the population. As predicted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), India is expected to reach its peak population of 1.6 billion by 2048, followed by a steep decline bringing the population to 1.1 billion and l synthetic fertility index (ISF) at 1.3 in 2100. — basically, the synthetic fertility index is the number of children a woman is expected to have during her lifetime. This study attributes advances in women’s educational attainment and access to contraceptives as major contributors to declining fertility and slowing population growth. In addition, women’s participation in the labor force plays a key role in determining the GSI.

The demographic transition is already underway in India. India’s TFR has declined significantly from 3.2 in 2000 to 2.2 according to the 2018 sample registration system. More recently, data from the first phase of the National Health Survey family, 2019-20 (NFHS-5) suggests that of the 17 states and 5 union territories (UTs) surveyed, only Bihar, Manipur and Meghalaya have yet to achieve a TFR of 2.1 or less, implying that most states have already reached replacement level fertility, which is defined as the rate at which the population replaces itself from one generation to the next.

Read also | Does India need population control? The UP policy project raises the question

According to NFHS-4 (2015-16), Uttar Pradesh has a TFR of 2.7, which is above the replacement level of TFR. The Population Projections Technical Group, formed by the National Population Commission under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, projected in July 2020 that UP would reach replacement level of ISF by 2025 , without the need for coercive policies.

In fact, a five-state study by Nirmala Buch, a former Indian administrative service official, found that in states that adopted a two-child policy, there was an increase in sex-selective and unsafe abortions. ; men divorced their wives to stand for local body elections, and families gave up their children for adoption to avoid disqualification. According to NFHS-4, while the sex ratio of UP for the whole population is 995, the sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years is 903 girls per 1,000 boys. The data clearly indicates an alarming trend in gender-selective practices in the state. Strict population control measures will potentially lead to an increase in such practices and unsafe abortions, given the strong preference for boys in the country.

All of this then begs the question: if there is no population explosion, what exactly are the objectives of the two-child policies and the proposed bill in Assam and Uttar Pradesh?

If the assumption is that “some” communities require population control measures, this too is not supported by evidence. The TFR for the Muslim population of UP fell more dramatically than any other group. The most significant impact of a two-child norm will be on poor and already vulnerable communities, especially women, regardless of caste or community, who already have little or no access to health services, including family planning and education. Disincentives that deny school benefits, rations, job opportunities and political representation will only exacerbate already glaring inequalities. Removing benefits when the poor have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic will cause even more hardship.

Economic and educational status is a much more reliable indicator of the number of children a woman will have than religious belief. According to NFHS-4, 2015-16 data, the TFR among women in India with 12 or more years of education is 1.7 compared to women with no education where it is 3.06. Similarly, the TFR in the highest wealth quintile is only 1.54 against 3.17 in the lowest quintile. Rather than a two-child policy that is anti-women, anti-children and anti-poor, we would do well to learn from Kerala. Investments in women’s empowerment, job opportunities, education and health system strengthening brought Kerala’s overall TFR to 1.6 in 2015-16.

Today, the “demographic explosion” is an imaginary problem. The real issue here is the unmet need for contraception, which in UP is significantly higher at 18% in 2015-16, compared to the national average of 13%. Women with unmet need for family planning want to access contraception but are unable to do so due to various barriers. Global evidence shows that expanding contraceptive method choice increases contraceptive use and continuity, empowering more women and couples to make decisions about their fertility – preventing unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions , spacing their children and achieving the desired family size. For example, in Bangladesh and Indonesia, two Muslim-majority countries, population growth has been reduced by expanding the basket of choices and making family planning easily accessible and available.

Going forward, we should focus on keeping girls in school and helping them achieve their educational goals, improving access to quality family planning and reproductive health services, tackling violence against women and girls, improving the health and well-being of families and creating opportunities for participation in the workforce. Only then will we be able to stabilize the population while simultaneously ensuring the health and welfare of all Indians.

(Poonam Muttreja is Executive Director, Population Foundation of India)