The ghost of population control was resurrected yet again last year after Uttar Pradesh and Assam announced policies to promote the two-child norm. It reinvigorated the popular belief that some people and communities have too many children and impede national development.
The default solution envisaged under these policies is to penalise people with more than two children through disincentives rather than addressing the root causes of high fertility. As research shows, punitive policies of population control have actually done more harm than good, especially to people who are already marginalised.
The tradition of blaming overpopulation for hampering development goes back to famines in India in 1876-’78, which killed more than five million people. The misery was blamed on the country’s high population rather than the exploitative colonial policies that exacerbated the situation by limiting funding for relief.
Since then, overpopulation has been a popular device to deflect from the developmental failures of colonial as well postcolonial governments, reintroduced in times of governance crises when there is not much else to blame.
Seven Indian states – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand – have laws barring couples with more than two children from contesting local body elections and accessing some welfare benefits.
But research has found that two-child policies have disproportionately harmed Dalits, tribals and Adivasis, Other Backward Castes, Muslims and most of all women. Such policies have reduced the representation of these groups in local politics. They have also resulted in sex-selective abortions, the desertion of wives and female infants and non-immunisation of daughters to avoid registration.
Ironically, two-child policies go against the mandate of National Population Policy, 2000, and India’s own commitments at international forums, including the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 in Cairo during which there was an emphasis on target-free and voluntary family-planning policies.
After Independence, the Centre decided that 8% of the aid it provided to states would be conditional on them achieving family planning targets. As a result, states with higher fertility rates, which reflected the lower socio-economic development of the region, were penalised by being deprived of crucial funds.
If anything, these regions needed additional assistance to deal with their dilapidated public health infrastructure and poor health indicators. Most of these states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh among them, are still bearing the brunt of this foregone developmental 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.
Further, as a consequence of the 42nd constitutional amendment in 1976, states whose population grew more than others are penalised by denying them proportional democratic representation. To reward states doing better in family planning efforts, this amendment froze parliamentary representation according to the figures of the 1971 Census for the 25 years.
This deadline has been extended several times. It is now scheduled to be revised in 2026.
In 1971, major Lok Sabha constituencies had a population of roughly one million people, with a narrow variation. Now, while the average parliamentarian from Rajasthan represents about 30 lakh citizens, an MP from Tamil Nadu represents fewer than 18 lakh people. This leads to the “one person one vote” principle being diluted, with huge implications for democratic representation in national policy decisions.
Freezing parliamentary seats and linking Central assistance to family planning are products of Emergency-era policies that do not serve any purpose now.
Researchers have established that higher fertility rates are a symptom of underdevelopment rather than the cause of it. Poverty and resource inequity lead to higher mortality and consequently higher birth rates. This is because the poor try to hedge against high death rates by having more children, who are an economic asset for the family.
Around the world, these trends have been reversed with an improvement in women’s lives, greater female literacy and employment and an overall equitable development process.
This massive inequality in resource distribution as well as policy failures must be considered before blaming “too many people” for India’s poor economic development.
Further, for democracies founded on the Lockean social contract, which locates sovereignty in “we the people”, the duty of the government is to govern through appropriate policies rather than control the number of the populace itself.
Most of all, population control no longer needs to be a policy priority since India has achieved the replacement level fertility, according to the latest round of the National Family Health Survey-5 data: the country’s fertility rate is 2.0, which means that Indian parents have only two children on average, leading to zero net growth of the population eventually.
What Indians need, instead, is access to voluntary, safe, accessible, and affordable family planning options, improvement in the socio-economic position of women and a strengthening of the public health infrastructure to address the social determinants of health that influence fertility patterns.
Sushant Kumar (he/him) is PhD candidate in Public Policy at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University in Boston.
This article was first published on Countercurrents.org.