Why punitive measures are harmful and distract from the real problem

The ghost of population control resurrected again last year after Uttar Pradesh and Assam announced policies to promote the two-child norm. He reinvigorated the popular belief that some people and communities have too many children and hinder national development.

The default solution envisaged under these policies is to penalize people with more than two children through dissuasive measures rather than attacking root causes of high fertility. As research shows, punitive population control policies have actually done more harm than good, especially to people who are already marginalized.

The tradition of blaming overpopulation for hampering development dates back to the famines in India in 1876-1878, which killed more than five million people. The misery was blamed on the country’s large population rather than on the exploitative colonial policies that exacerbated the situation by limiting relief funding.

Since then, overpopulation has been a popular way of deflecting the development failures of colonial and postcolonial governments, reintroduced in times of crisis of governance when there is little else to blame.

Seven Indian states – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand – have laws prohibiting couples with more than two children from running for local body elections and accessing certain social benefits.

But research has found that two-child policies have disproportionately harmed Dalits, Tribals and Adivasis, other backward castes, Muslims and especially women. These policies have reduced the representation of these groups in local politics. They have also resulted in sex-selective abortions, the abandonment of wives and female children, and the non-vaccination of girls to avoid registration.

Ironically, the two-child policies run counter to the mandate of the National Population Policy of 2000 and India’s own commitments in international fora, including the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 in Cairo, during which emphasis was placed on voluntary family planning policies.

After independence, the Center decided that 8% of the aid it would provide to states would be conditional on the achievement of family planning goals. As a result, states with higher fertility rates, which reflected the lower socio-economic development of the region, were penalized by being starved of crucial funds.

On the contrary, these regions needed additional help to deal with their dilapidated public health infrastructures and poor health indicators. Most of these states, including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, still bear the brunt of this lost development aid. They are caught in a spiral of relatively low development, high mortality and high fertility compared to states that already had lower fertility rates and benefited from the additional central aid.

In addition, following the 42nd Constitutional Amendment in 1976, states whose population grew more than others were penalized by denying them proportional democratic representation. To reward states doing better in family planning efforts, this amendment froze parliamentary representation according to 1971 census figures for 25 years.

This deadline has been extended several times. It should now be overhauled in 2026.

In 1971, the main Lok Sabha constituencies had a population of around one million people, with a narrow variation. Now, while the average MP in Rajasthan represents about 30 lakh citizens, an MP in Tamil Nadu represents less than 18 lakh. This leads to the dilution of the “one person, one vote” principle, with huge implications for democratic representation in national political decisions.

Freezing parliamentary seats and tying central assistance to family planning are products of emergency-era policies that now serve no purpose.

Researchers established that higher fertility rates are a symptom of underdevelopment rather than a cause of it. Poverty and resource inequality lead to higher mortality and, therefore, higher birth rates. Indeed, the poor try to insure themselves against high mortality rates by having more children, which are an economic asset for the family.

Around the world, these trends have reversed with an improvement in the lives of women, greater literacy and better employment for women, and an overall process of equitable development.

It should be noted that the Top 10% of Indian population holds 57% of the national income, against the poorest 50% who hold only 13%, according to the latest World inequality report.

This massive inequality in the distribution of resources as well as political failures must be taken into account before blaming “too many people” for India’s poor economic development.

Moreover, for democracies based on Locke’s social contract, which locates sovereignty in “we the people”, the duty of government is to govern through appropriate policies rather than to control the number of the population itself.

Crucially, population control no longer needs to be a political priority since India reached replacement level fertility, according to the latest round of the survey. Data from the National Family Health Survey-5: the country’s fertility rate is 2.0, which means that Indian parents have only two children on average, which ultimately leads to zero net population growth.

Rather, what Indians need is access to voluntary, safe, accessible and affordable family planning options, improved socio-economic status of women and strengthened infrastructure. public health to address the social determinants of health that influence fertility patterns.

Sushant Kumar (he/him) is a doctoral candidate in public policy at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston.

This article was first published on Counter-currents.org.