In 1997, a complaint was lodged against Somyajulu, a 40-year-old man who was a sarpanch in a village in Telangana’s Nalgonda district. His wife was expecting their third child. Somyajulu, the complain said, was violating the law barring people with more than two children from serving on local self-governments.

Somyajulu sent his pregnant wife to her parents’ home and filed a plea with the authorities stating that he was being falsely implicated. The complaint was not followed through due to lack of evidence. The sarpanch eventually deserted his wife and got married a second time. The incident, quoted in a five-state study titled Law of Two Child Norm in Panchayat published in 2005 is a reminder of how double-edged the implications of such a coercive policy could be.

In 1952, India became the first developing nation with the foresight to formulate a voluntary National Family Welfare Programme. Since then, especially, post the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, India’s population discourse has followed an empowerment approach, which underscores that every woman has the right to decide if, when and how many children to have.

If a women’s needs for family planning and sexual and reproductive healthcare are met, along with other basic health and education needs, then population stabilisation will be achieved naturally, not as a matter of control or coercion. This approach is also well-reflected in the National Population Policy, 2000.

Slowing growth

As a result of the efforts made by the government over the decades, India has already started experiencing a slowing down in population growth and is on course to achieve population stabilisation, with a total fertility rate of 2.2. In fact, 24 states in India have already reached the replacement level of two children on an average. It is important to note that the decline in total fertility rate varies in states based on their health and development status.

As per World Population Prospects projections of the United Nations in 2019 and population projections by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation this year, India’s population will peak by 2050, followed by steeper decline in population. Total fertility rate will reach 1.3 in 2100. These projections emphasize advancement in female education attainment and access to contraceptives as key contributors to the decline in fertility and slow population growth.

Despite the strides made by India, contrary arguments in favour of the implementation of a coercive population policy have been gaining momentum in recent times. Such a discourse is not only counter-productive, undemocratic and discriminatory, but also threatens to stall the progress made by successive governments towards population stabilisation.

Absence of evidence

There is no evidence on the effectiveness of a two-child policy, which would particularly be detrimental for vulnerable population groups . India continues to be a society with a strong son-preference, where ultimately the families govern the number of children a woman will bear. A coercive population policy will result in higher number of sex-selective abortions, abandonment of women and eventually a skewed sex ratio.

A case in point is the state of Haryana, where this policy was introduced in 2002, and now has the lowest sex ratio is the lowest in the country. The states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh also brought in the two-child norm policy to tackle high total fertility rate. The policy did not bring down the high fertility in these states – instead there was an increase in sex-selective abortions, incidents of women being deserted, and women giving their children up for adoption. In 2015, China, was forced to revoke its one-child policy after 35 years and now finds itself in the midst of a population crisis.

In contrast, Kerala witnessed a reduction in the total fertility rate across all communities and economic and social groups from 3 in 1979 to 1.8 in 1991. This was achieved not by coercion but by improving education, women and child welfare, and development. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, fertility rates were stabilised by simply increasing age at marriage, a move that was made more effective by ensuring girls were educated.

Formulating appropriate family planning information and communication, improving primary care facilities, and focusing on pockets of unmet need for contraceptives will have the desired impact on strengthening women’s health and ensuring healthy children, lowering maternal, infant and child mortality.

To quote the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from his Independence Day speech in 2019, “If the population is not educated, not healthy, then neither the home nor the country can be happy. When the population is educated, empowered, and skilled, they will have adequate means available to achieve the right ambiance to fulfil their wishes and needs. Governments also have to come forward, be it the state government or the Central government – everyone has to walk together to shoulder this responsibility. We cannot think of an unhealthy society; we cannot think of an uneducated society.”

When India’s population crossed the one-billion mark on May 11, 2000, Atal Bihari Vajpeyi, who was prime minister at the time, said, “Population stabilisation cannot be achieved without all-round socio-economic development, and definitely not through coercion.” It is incumbent upon the leaders of our country today to dispel myths and prevent the emerging efforts to propagate negative sentiments regarding population growth.

It is imperative for people to understand that women’s education, income and workforce participation are critical for ensuring that girls stay in school longer, become part of economically productive workforce, delay their age of marriage, have fewer and healthier children and contribute to the household and national economy.

A two-child norm is not the solution, instead we need to focus on changing social norms, increasing investments in family planning services, especially bearing in mind, India’s large young population and ensuring gender-inclusive socioeconomic policies.

Poonam Muttreja is the executive director of the Population Foundation of India.