Sudden interest in ‘population control’ in Assam and UP indicates political bad faith

The past two weeks have seen a sudden surge of political interest in population control in two BJP-ruled states, Assam and UP, which has sparked speculation about the motives. What differentiates the two main ministers is that one has just started his term while the other is at the end of his term.

Population control is basically a good idea and has been since independence. India was the first country in the world to have a national family planning program in 1952. We have had a national population policy for over half a century which has been updated from time to time. The latest policy, introduced in 2000, is being vigorously followed. It paid off, with 24 of 29 states reaching a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1, which is considered the replacement level (no additional population growth). The remaining states, commonly referred to as BIMARU states, although lagging behind, are also on track.

In this context, the question arises: what is the provocation for the two CMs to suddenly announce their respective demographic policies? Either way, keeping the cauldron boiling for community polarization is the likely answer, and likely electoral gains for Yogi Adityanath in the impending elections.

The proposed measures suffer from a few key flaws. First, global experience shows that any coercion in population control is counterproductive. And how can we forget the forced sterilization program of the emergency era (1975-77), which caused a backlash from which the country has not yet recovered?

Second, the two-child norm has already shown dire consequences for women in other states, with many facing divorce to prevent their husbands from being disqualified from running for office and couples opting for feticide. women on a large scale, which further distorted the gender relationship. The sex ratio of children in India is steadily declining from 945 in 1991 to 918 in 2011.

Assam’s CM has expressed concern about the “population explosion” within the state’s Muslim community. He further reiterated that strict population control is the only way to foster the development of the community.

Although the statement quoted above may sound alarmist, the government can be credited with taking action with positive implications. Dedicated subcommittees on a range of issues, from health and education to financial inclusion and women’s empowerment, are part of the plans, which are laudable initiatives. The government’s intention to focus on the education and empowerment of women is a sensible step forward.

However, fixing on a particular minority community to take sole responsibility for population control is an atrocious idea. Setting upper limits on the number of children and tying them to government aid and benefits is questionable, as China is currently witnessing. The one-child policy adopted by this country in the 1990s proved disastrous, forcing the country to move to the two-child standard, and very recently, to the three-child standard. China is now burdened with almost 70% old people and less than 30% young people to support them, a consequence that was not intended.

On the contrary, India’s proactive population policy is doing very well, having achieved a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1, which means that a couple is “replaced” by two children. In Assam, in particular, the TFR has indeed gone from 2.2 in 2015 to 1.9 in 2020-21. Thus, the demographic “explosion” is a bogey. The use of modern contraceptive methods by women is highest among Muslim women in Assam, at 49%. The unmet need for contraception is also the highest among them, at 12.2%. The problem, clearly, is not the uncontrolled increase in population within the community as the government expects, but the poor delivery of services.

The Population Foundation of India has rightly pointed out that a strict limitation on the number of children, like the two-child norm, will trigger a rapid increase in gender-specific divorces and abortions, which will be very detrimental to the future of the population. nation.

So what can we do? Three vital factors are responsible for high fertility: illiteracy (particularly among girls), poverty and the poor reach of health services. CM Sarma’s emphasis on taking these factors into account is quite appropriate. CM Yogi must imitate this. An internationally recognized principle is that “development is the best contraceptive”. It must precede fertility control and not the other way around.

In relation to Assam, Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh population policy 2021-2030 did not specifically mention Muslims, although no one doubts the aim is to keep communal hatred simmering, a formula tested and proven to win elections.

On the face of it, the justification given and most of the provisions of the bill seem reasonable. It is the coercive elements, such as denial of government jobs and benefits from government programs, that make it undesirable and counterproductive.

It should be noted that despite the triple handicap of low literacy, extreme poverty and low access to family planning services, family planning uptake among Muslims has been remarkably high over the past few years. past three decades – faster than the Hindus. As a result, the fertility differential between Hindus and Muslims, which was more than one child (1.1 to be precise), fell to 0.48.

According to NFHS-4, in 22 states, the fertility rate of Muslims was lower than that of Hindus in Bihar. If religion were the determining factor, Muslims across the country would have higher fertility. This underscores the fact that socioeconomic conditions, rather than religion, influence fertility behavior. NFHS surveys clearly show that in so-called BIMARU states, the socio-economic conditions of Hindus and Muslims are lower than in other states.

A pertinent question is: don’t Hindus also have more than two children? A backlash cannot be excluded. In fact, within 24 hours, VHP attacked the policy. Even an NRC-like reaction cannot be ruled out when more Hindus than Muslims were affected, forcing the government to take shelter.

Since it is not legally possible for the two bills to target a specific religious community, namely Muslims, the wisest course for Muslims would be not to fall into the trap and start attacking politicians. Instead, they should support the three-pronged development plans to tackle their illiteracy, income and service delivery.

This column first appeared in the print edition of July 15, 2021 under the title “Le retour d’un bogey”. The writer is the former Chief Electoral Commissioner of India and the author of The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India.