One doesn’t have to be a Thomas Malthus to recognise that the Indian population of 1.12 billion and rising is far too much for a nation that has serious problems in providing basic welfare to a majority of its people. While some may argue that such a humongous number lies at the root of the humanitarian problem, others argue that it is the lack of basic amenities and rights for many that leads to the ‘population problem’. For years, policymakers have been tinkering with this chicken-and-egg problem. Now, it is the Supreme Court’s turn to enter the fray. On Tuesday, responding to the Government of India’s petition to replace one maternity scheme with another that removes the two-child, 19-year-olds and above cap for eligibility, the apex court observed that such a scheme could not be indefinitely funded. The new scheme applies to women from below poverty line (BPL) families and provides Rs 500 to expecting mothers 12 weeks before delivery.
So does the State indefinitely keep throwing tax payers’ money at pregnant BPL women when there’s a national consensus on reducing the population growth rate? Or does it provide nutritional care through monetary means to women who can’t afford the most basic maternal care? The fact is that both methods are scampering up the wrong tree. The programme of action of the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development as well as India’s National Population Policy 2000 concluded that linking incentives and disincentives with the use of contraception is pretty much pointless. Such an approach takes only reducing numbers into consideration and, ironically, fails in doing just that. Disincentives such as making needy individuals with more than two children ineligible for schemes such as PDS ration, mid-day meals or micro-credit are inhumane; in fact, unconstitutional.
The real way forward is to bundle policy initiatives like the education of girls, provision of better health services and social security, empowering women to take reproductive decisions and providing peer group information on contraception. The correlation between these initiatives and reducing fertility rates is proven. The question is whether the State, socialistic in its rhetoric down the decades, will stop taking the easy way out and proceed to build a solid welfare net that can take care of our needy millions who, today, have nothing to gain in the long-term by having smaller families.