FERTILITY is a touchy-feely area, in which no one wants the state to intervene, but expects the state to handle the outcomes of irresponsible reproduction.
The fact is that the state must and does intervene in areas like fertility treatment (IVF) and terminations of pregnancy, for instance. It legislates on what is the acceptable practice.
Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, proud father of two, recently produced a noteworthy brainchild. He proposed that the hill state should disqualify those with more than two children from government jobs and election to local bodies. Sarma, nurtured in the Congress but now in the BJP, thinks his scheme should be adopted at the national level.
Where do the two national parties stand on Sarma’s population control initiative? Is it regressive or progressive? In the past, RSS sarsanghchalaks have been accused of encouraging Hindu women to produce more children, to counter the growth of minorities whose share had crept from 12.61 per cent in 1991 to 14.2 per cent in 2011. A resolution on redressing this grievous demographic imbalance was passed at the RSS’ Ranchi session in 2015.
However, RSS core committee member Krishna Gopal later explained that “if religion prevents one from opting for family planning norms, we must go by the nationalist spirit and formulate a policy keeping under consideration the available resources of the country”. Reading between the lines, the RSS doesn’t want Hindu women to have more children but for non-Hindus to have less.
Anyhow, this enables Sarma to claim his policy is in line with the RSS approach. The Congress has obligingly accused Sarma of following the RSS agenda, thereby vindicating his stand.
The Congress was rather gung-ho on population stabilisation in the 1970s but ran out of steam thereafter, perhaps because its efforts during the Emergency were panned as being over-the-top. Under P V Narasimha Rao, another sterling effort was made to put population control back on the agenda.
In 1992, the then health & family welfare minister M L Fotedar introduced the Constitution (79th amendment) Bill, which would have disqualified legislators of either house of Parliament and the state assemblies, if they had more than two children. As representatives and role models, it was their fundamental duty to promote the small family norm, the minister said.
The idea came out of a National Development Council meeting, where the then Kerala chief minister K Karunakaran recommended legislation in Parliament prohibiting persons with more than two children from holding any future political post. The law was naturally intended to be retrospective, as Fotedar had five children and the Prime Minister had eight.
The Parliament Standing Committee agreed with the minister and recommended the Bill be passsed forthwith but the government got cold feet. An all-party meeting to discuss the Bill was convened in 1997 and 1999 to discuss the matter, but nothing came of it.
The state governments, however, forged ahead of the centre. Nine states adopted the two-child norm as a qualification for contesting local bodies’ elections. The move brought down the wrath of the liberal left on their heads, led
by former Panchayati Raj minister Mani Shankar Aiyer. His campaign bore partial fruit and four states — Madhya Pradesh,
Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh — were cowed into submission and withdrew the two-child norm.
Five states stuck to their guns: Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, which continue to offer, besides disincentives, a package of incentives for small families. Mani & Co described the two-child norm as socially regressive, gender discriminatory, un-democratic and amounting to interference with reproductive rights.
Mani & Co in turn were ridiculed for ignoring the tremendous pressure population growth puts on the Public Distribution System and the violation of the human rights of children growing up malnourished. Besides, it leads to unrealistic expectations from a nanny-state with limited resources. On an ethical level, it violates the rights of other species, by gobbling up planetary resources that they need to survive and driving them into extinction. In other words, homo sapiens cannot claim the Earth by divine right, because it belongs to all living creatures.
Spiritual leader Jaggi Vasudev put it bluntly, “Either we control our population consciously, or nature will do it in a very cruel manner”. The population bomb, the godman believes, nullifies all of humanity’s efforts at progress. (He encourages fertile couples to opt for adoption rather than have biological children)
The big takeaway from the debate is that fertility is a touchy-feely area, in which no one wants the state to intervene, but expects the state to handle the outcomes of irresponsible reproduction. The fact is that the state must and does intervene, in areas like fertility treatment (IVF) and terminations of pregnancy, for instance. It legislates on what is the acceptable practice.
Politicians are reluctant to serve as role models for population control. The two-child norm is applied at the panchayat level, but god forbid that MPs or MLAs should have to adhere to it. (Having said that, the current Cabinet boasts an honor role of ministers with just two, one, or no children.) Sarma deserves praise for having courageously raised the issue.
If it takes a village to raise a child, India’s going to need a lot more villages.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines.
She is now an independent writer and author