Assam’s draft population policy 2017 has stated its goal as “every family in Assam should have access to quality education, healthcare and employment opportunities”. This is a well-meaning and commendable objective. However, the policy also has disincentives for people who have more than two children, which will disproportionately impact those who are the most disadvantaged.

Some of the measures the policy proposes are giving free education to all girls up to university level, special strategies to lower school dropout rates for girls, preventing underage marriages, care for the elderly, affirmative action to increase women’s participation in the workforce, and improve quality of health service delivery to enable couples to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children. All these will go a long way in helping the state achieve quality education, healthcare and employment opportunities for every family.

But the government also wants to make people with more than two children ineligible for government employment and electoral participation in panchayat and municipal elections, and introduce minimum educational qualification criteria for contesting elections to panchayats and urban local bodies. While government’s concern regarding the growing population may be valid, the route that it wants to adopt to stabilise the population is misplaced.

Assam’s total fertility rate, which is the number of children per woman, is now at par with the rest of India at 2.2. In fact, in urban areas the total fertility rate at 1.5 is much below replacement level fertility. Replacement level fertility is the rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration.

Populations typically go through a cycle of three phases – high birth rates and high death rates, high birth rates and low death rates as medical care increases, and low birth rates and low death rates as standards of living improve along with medical advancement. Most states in India are in transition from second phase to third phase.

No coercive measures needed

With reducing total fertility rates, Assam’s population is moving towards stabilisation. The reproductive momentum produced by the young cohort will carry through for the next decade or so, after which the effects of low total fertility rate will kick in. Meanwhile, the single most important factor that will check this momentum is a higher age of marriage. To achieve this increasing the number years of schooling for girls is crucial.

Children dancing during bihu (spring festival) on Majuli island, Assam. (Photo: Woodlouse/Flickr)

This is what helped in reduction of fertility rates in Sri Lanka in 1980s and 1990s without any coercion. Kerala also witnessed such a change when it laid emphasis on education. However, in Assam only about a quarter of the women – 26.2% in the age group of 15-49 years – have 10 or more years of schooling as against an average of 35.7% for all India, according to the latest round of the National Family Health Survey.

Communities with higher fertility rates in Assam will be most impacted by exclusionary measures suggested in the new population policy. These are people in the lowest wealth quintile, those with no education and people belonging to the Muslim community. In Assam, Muslims comprise 34% of the state’s total population, according to the 2011 census. As per the Kundu committee report on the socio-economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India,poverty levels among Muslims are higher than the national average. Thus, the two-child norm will be antithetical to the policy’s goal of ensuring every family’s access to employment opportunities.

Tackling maternal and child deaths

Considering that Assam’s total fertility rate is well on its way downwards and close to reaching the replacement level fertility of 2.1, there is no reason for the state government to panic and take such drastic measures. Rather, the state should focus on tackling its high maternal mortality that is also the highest the country, its high infant and under-5 mortality rates. Providing better healthcare and taking measures to reduce child mortality will help in further reducing the total fertility rate since a couple is likely to have more children if the chances of a child surviving is lower.

The use of any modern method of contraception in Assam has increased from 27% in 2005-’06 to 38.4% in 2015-’16 , though the total unmet need for family planning has also slightly increased from 12.2% to 14.2% in the same time period. Therefore, focussing on better child survival and increasing access to contraceptive methods of choice would yield better results for development, rather than a coercive two-child policy. Sex ratio at birth has reduced from 1,033 girls per 1,000 boys in 2005-’06 to 929 in 2015-’16 in Assam. A two-child policy is likely to further skew the ratio unfavourably as is being seen in the case of China, which has an increasingly male population.

Further, research conducted in other states like Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan that have enacted similar policies indicates that the provision to disqualify candidates from panchayat elections based on the number of children has led to men deserting their wives and families and initiating new marriages, women seeking unsafe abortions, and couples giving children up for adoption. Thus, women have been reported to bear the brunt of the disqualification clause.

The Assam state government should focus on enabling measures such as women’s education and access to quality healthcare including contraceptives of their choice rather than disabling measures, which will instead increase inequality in the state.

The writer is an independent public health practitioner.