Population control without coercion

CHENNAI: Last week, it was reported that India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country next year. The study compiled by the UN indicates that the world’s population is expected to reach a staggering 8 billion mark by mid-November this year.

More than 50% of the projected peak world population by 2050 will be attributed to about eight countries, including India and a few countries in Africa. Tellingly, in June, Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel said that India would soon implement a population control law.

The announcement sparked a debate about how such a law can be enforced, its impact on citizens, and whether such laws will affect employment and other government benefits. It was after the intervention of Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya that the Population Control Bill 2019 was withdrawn in April 2022. Mandaviya had informed the Rajya Sabha that instead of using force, India had successfully used awareness and health campaigns to achieve population control.

Mandaviya had discussed the impact of family planning programs on a range of measures. This also included a drop in the synthetic fertility index (ISF), the average number of children carried by a woman, which is now 2.0 nationally. Figures from the National Family Health Survey and census data show that the rate of population growth has been on a downward trajectory for some time now. The average annual exponential population growth was 2.20 in 1971, which fell to 2.14 in 1991, 1.97 in 2001 and 1.64 in 2011. The two-child policy was mentioned in parliament around 35 times, but was rejected on account of ignoring minority rights and the rights of divorced people.

An offense arising from such a law would implicate Article 22 of the 1969 Declaration on Social Progress and Development, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. This article guarantees couples the right to choose the number of children they will have. Rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution, including Article 16 (equal opportunity in public employment) and Article 21 (protection of life and liberty) could also be violated by such policies. India has a dark history of mass sterilization which was carried out following the emergency in 1976 when as many as 6.2 million men were sterilized in the country, including several thousand of them were involuntary operations.

Currently, a few states have implemented laws that encourage population control measures if passed by citizens. In 2017, the Assembly of Assam gave the green signal to Assam’s population and women’s empowerment policy. Under the policy, only people with two children would be eligible for government employment, while those already employed by the administration were welcome to play ball. A year ago, the UP law commission proposed to ban government grants to people with more than two children. States like Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have one or another type of two-child policy which applies to those who are vying for elected government positions.

The proven policy of increasing literacy, especially among women, is key when it comes to family planning initiatives. By nature, family planning is a personal choice, which in turn has a greater impact on the community, then on the nation. Adopting a baton-centric approach like that of China with its now abolished one-child policy could only exacerbate scenarios of sex-selective abortions at risk. India must ensure that awareness initiatives relating to birth control and maternal health are prioritized in all states.