The perils of a two-child policy
Days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of India’s ‘population explosion’ in his Independence Day speech, an RSS-backed organisation declared that there was no need for sex education in schools.
It’s an astonishing stand in a country where 240 million girls are married before 18 and only 7.1% of married women between the ages 15-19 use contraception. Awareness of birth control (along with sex education) is a key driver to fulfilling the PM’s assertion that keeping family size small is an act of patriotism.
At 1.37 billion people, projected to swell to two billion by the end of the century, concerns about India’s burgeoning numbers are not new. In 2016, a BJP MP introduced a bill under which couples opting for a third child would need government permission. That bill never came up for vote and in July, Rakesh Sinha, a nominated BJP MP introduced another bill that singles out couples with more than two children for punitive action, including disqualification of elected legislators, as well as incentives (cheaper health care, subsidised loans) for those who stick with two.
Underlying these concerns is a belief that it’s one community that produces the most children. So, BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj calls on every Hindu woman to produce four children and minister Giriraj Singh says India’s growing Muslim population is a “threat to the social fabric, harmony and development of the country”.
But, “There is no evidence to show that larger family sizes are due to reasons other than those determined by social and economic circumstances including poverty, lack of basic services and governance,” says Poonam Mutterja, executive director, Population Foundation of India. Analysis by Sachin Mampatta in Mint finds that at current growth trends, by 2061 Hindus will comprise 81% of the population; Muslims no more than 17%.
In fact, fertility rates are declining and, as of 2016, was 2.3 births per woman, finds Niti Aayog. Population growth has fallen from 21.5% in 1991-2001, to 17.6% for 2001-2011.
Concerns about a national law on population revolve around two questions. Will it be coercive? Will it further skew our already precarious sex ratio, as it did in China where the one-child policy resulted in 1.15 males for every female?
A 2005 study by Nirmala Buch reported in Economic and Political Weekly found that states that had adopted a two-child norm as a condition for panchayat elections had a spike in sex-selective and unsafe abortions. Men were also divorcing their wives and putting up their children for adoption, the study found.
“A combination of factors, including higher levels of female education, greater employment opportunities and access to a bigger basket of contraceptive choices are primary drivers to achieve population stabilisation, health and wellbeing,” says Mutterja. Another factor helps: Delaying marriage.
India has already learned the hard way that coercion rarely works. In 1975, Sanjay Gandhi’s nasbandi programme set population policies back by decades. It also cost his mother the elections.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender
The views expressed are personal