Population control has been one of independent India’s least controversial policies, despite its overwhelming weaknesses, conceptually and empirically. Last month, yoga guru Ramdev – who promised what he calls a “cure” for being gay in 2013 – called for revoking the voting rights and welfare benefits of those who have more than two children, revealing he has as much understanding of issues related to population, as he has to sexual orientation. His comments could have been dismissed as an individual’s idiosyncrasy, not to be treated seriously. But last February, three Public Interest Litigations were filed in the Supreme Court to seek stricter implementation of population control measures in India, especially the two-child policy.
The often-repeated argument for population control is typically based on the assumption that India’s “population explosion” is the leading cause of poverty, unemployment, poor health, and degradation of the environment. The two-child policy, and a system of reward and punishment for those who adhere to it, is proposed as the solution to India’s structural problems.
Such pleas for punitive approaches towards population control are both empirically wrong and pragmatically misplaced. At the outset, the myth of population explosion itself demands scrutiny. India’s total fertility rate, which is the number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime, has been on a sustained decline. The recent National Family and Health Survey 2015-’16 records national total fertility rate of 2.2, just 0.1 point short of the desired replacement levels of fertility. Many states have already reached the replacement levels. The highest rate of decline in the total fertility rate has been recorded amongst Muslims despite claims to the contrary by Hindutva groups who seek to use demography for political purposes and to create fear.
To speed up India’s undergoing demographic transition, substantial investments and improvements in social sectors such as health, food and employment security, and education, are required. Why are more public interest litigations being filed for that?
Borrowing from China’s one-child norm, while conveniently ignoring its dark history of brutal coercion to enforce this norm, many Indian states have over the years made the norm of having no more than two children a precondition for holding government office, qualifying for government jobs, contesting for the Panchayati Raj institutions, and receiving welfare benefits. These were policy initiatives suggested by international agencies, the World Bank among them, which have now rethought these policies and no longer advocate them.
Raising concerns over the two-child policy prescription, the National Human Rights Commission’s Declaration of 2003 had aptly called it “a violation of principle of voluntary informed choice and the human rights of the people”. Several studies on the implications of the two-child policy have shown that the burden of the disqualifications and disincentives is invariably borne by those who are already marginalised. Rather than inducing the small family norm as a demonstrated social goal, evidence suggests that the two-child policy led to the desertion of wives and female children, non-registration of births, non-immunisation of daughters, sex-selection, and forced abortions.
The two-child policy and most of India’s other population control measures that are disguised as family planning and welfare programmes are anti-women, especially women from oppressed sections. Female sterilisation continues to be the main method of contraception in India, preferred both by the patriarchal state and the families that women are married into.
The National Family and Health Survey 2015-’16 reports that the current use of male sterilisation, a safer method, has further declined from 1.1% to 0.3% in the last decade. Sadly, the health system has become immune to even the death of women due to sterilisation, as indicated by the acquittal of the doctor responsible for the Bilaspur tragedy in 2014. Despite the Supreme Court ruling of 2016 against the camp approach, target-based and substandard female sterilisation camps are still the norm in large parts of rural India.
Instead of ensuring reproductive justice, demands for invasive methods and punitive approaches to population control have often found a larger support base, and not only in India. Global resurgence of neo-Malthusianism has timed well with the rise of the right-wing (some tinged with religion, others not), the ideology of privatisation, and the growing grip of philanthrocapitalism on the health sector. This has meant that even if the rhetoric might have changed, the intent and content of the international population discourse have not. The international push for the controversial Depo Provera contraceptive injection, and its inclusion in India’s Parivar Vikas Mission, is a testimony of how concerns for women’s safety are downplayed by the global and national population control lobbies, that talk in the name of women’s rights.
Issue of justice
Not only are population control measures such as the two-child policy detrimental to reproductive justice, they are also against the principles of natural and social justice. The two-child policy creates two sets of citizenship rights on the basis of fertility. A citizenship based on a system of rewards and punishment can never be just or democratic. Much like the current chaos caused by exclusions due to Aadhaar, the push for two-child policy and punitive population control measures will lead to further denial of justice to a vast and vulnerable majority of Indian citizens.
As China rethinks its failed population policy as it suffers from massive population imbalances, it is time the proponents of punitive population policies in India, including Ramdev, realise how distorted and dangerous their demands are.