Opinion| A two-child norm is ineffective and wrong
One more point: Every government employee will be required to give an undertaking that he or she will not have more than two children. If this commitment is broken, promotions will be forfeited.Updated: Jul 20, 2019 21:07 IST
Is history repeating itself? I have a horrible feeling it is. What I’m not sure of is whether it will be as tragedy or farce. Last week Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha tabled The Population Regulation Bill to make two-child families the norm, incentivising those who adhere to it and penalising parents who don’t. Ah, I said, Sanjay Gandhi lives again! His effort during the Emergency, over 40 years ago, was the last time something similar was attempted.
Sinha’s bill stipulates 17 different incentives for families that stick to two children. These include income tax rebates and free health care for parents, subsidies and loans for plots and houses, and free health care and education if they have only one child. The bill identifies five penalties for contravening the norm. They include reduced public distribution system benefits, higher interest rates on loans, lower interest on savings and debarment from contesting elections to Parliament, state legislatures and local self-government bodies.
One more point: Every government employee will be required to give an undertaking that he or she will not have more than two children. If this commitment is broken, promotions will be forfeited.
This is pretty strong stuff and it raises two fundamental questions. Is this morally acceptable? And is it necessary? You could add a third: is this targeted at a particular community?
How many children parents choose to have is, I believe, their prerogative. My grandparents had 10, my parents four, my sisters two each and one. I’ve none. We weren’t pushed towards a particular number. We decided for ourselves. And so it should be. Except in critical situations, the State has no business to influence this decision.
So does that condition exist? Is this bill necessary because our population is galloping out of control? The facts clearly show it’s not.
India’s census data confirms our population growth is slowing down. The decadal growth rate declined to 17.7% in 2001-2011 from 21.5% in 1991-2001. As a result, the year India will surpass China’s population has been pushed back from 2022 to 2027.
Second, the national Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which is the number of children likely to be born to a woman in her lifetime, is down to 2.2, just above the replacement level of 2.1. Dig a little deeper and the picture becomes even clearer. Twenty four Indian states and Union Territories have already reached the replacement level TFR of 2.1. In fact, between 2005-06 and 2015-16, TFR declined in every state except Andhra Pradesh. Five have TFRs well below the replacement level. Sikkim’s is just 1.2.
As the Population Foundation of India (PFI) concludes, “the bill is misguided and a misreading of India’s demographic trajectory”.
Now, to the third question, is this bill targeting a particular community? Although I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure it is. Am I wrong in sensing echoes of ‘hum paanch hamare pachees’?
In fact, my suspicions could even be corroborated by Rakesh Sinha himself. In the bill’s Statement of Objects and Reasons he writes “close to 72 districts have TFR more than four children per woman”. Speaking to newspapers, he adds this includes “many districts which are dominated by minorities”. Does that give the game away?
Finally, PFI claims evidence suggests a two-child norm is not only ineffective but leads to undesirable outcomes. Several states have tried it but failed to bring down fertility rates. Instead, they saw a rise in sex-selective and unsafe abortions, men divorcing wives so they could stand for elections and families giving children for adoption to avoid penalties.
Now, not for a moment would I deny we have serious problems on the population front. Perhaps the most perturbing is the sex ratio at birth. After improving to 910 in 2013 it’s declined to 898 in 2017. As Poonam Muttreja, PFI’s executive director, says: “Indians want less children now but want them as sons”. Sinha’s bill doesn’t tackle that problem. Indeed, it might make it worse.
The views expressed are personal