The latest buzzword in national politics is population control. No one talks about demographic dividend any longer. What has brought about this fundamental change in perception is the move by the Assam and Uttar Pradesh governments to bring forward legislation to introduce disincentives against those who do not follow the two-child norm.
Already, laws are in force in about a dozen states, where parents of three or more children are barred from contesting panchayat and municipal elections. Taking their cue from such initiatives, the UP and Assam chief ministers want to deny such parents access to a host of government services like loans for house construction. Nowadays, minority educational scholarships are given only to the first two children of a family.
An impression has been deliberately created that Muslims are to blame squarely for what is called the population explosion. This is without rhyme or reason. Politically, the purpose is to characterise the minorities as baby producers and thereby polarise the voters on religious grounds. With elections round the corner in UP, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath feels an urgency to cash in on this divisive agenda.
More than hundred years ago, a book was written to predict that Hindus would become a minority in India in less than a hundred years. Even if the combined population of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were to be taken into account, Hindus would continue to be in a majority. There is nothing at all, scripturally or otherwise, to suggest that Islam is against population control. In Iran, the land of Islamic revolution, the government has been encouraging people to have more children to beat the negative demographic growth rate. Bangladesh proves how education, especially women’s education, plays an important role in controlling population.
India is the first country to introduce family planning as a national policy. It was also the first to legalise abortion. Over the last 50 years, the country has achieved considerable progress in controlling population growth, which has plateaued in several states. In those states, there will not be any growth in population, as they have reached what is called the replacement level. Some states like Kerala have also begun recording a negative growth rate.
However, the villains of the piece are some north Indian states, popularly known as the BIMARU states. These laggards are the ones who are primarily responsible for the population boom. Incentives like cash payment and utensils, including plastic buckets, a novelty those days, were given to popularise methods like vasectomy and tubectomy.
The policy suffered a huge setback when during the Emergency, the government used force to compulsorily sterilise persons in the reproductive age group in some states. The government was voted out in 1977 but the nation is yet to recover from the damage the coercive tactics inflicted on the policy. There is no rationale for declining scholarship to the third or fourth child, for they had no control over their own birth.
Similarly, when the government says that such a person will not be entitled to a government job, does it mean that the first two children will surely get government jobs? To circumvent the restrictions on contesting panchayat elections, there have been cases of divorce. Also, it will give an impetus to what Prof Amartya Sen derisively calls ‘murder in the womb’ of female fetuses.
What the protagonists of disincentives advocate is what China tried out unsuccessfully. It introduced the one-child norm, which created such an imbalance in Chinese society that there are now more older people than young ones. When sense dawned on them, the one-child norm was replaced by the two-child norm and, now, the three-child norm. Why are we so eager to follow what China has realised was a foolish policy?
There is enough empirical data to suggest that where people are educated and are better off, there is no alarming growth rate. In short, development is the best contraceptive. It is not religion but poverty and lack of education which are the root causes of the population boom. True, a large number of people who are not educated and do not have any skills to be productive are a drain on scarce resources.
Unfortunately, the state has not been investing adequately in sectors like education and public health, leaving them to the profit-oriented private sector. Once education spreads and people aspire to have better living standards, there will be fewer children as in states like Tamil Nadu in the south, Himachal Pradesh in the North and Mizoram in the northeast. In short, education is the best antidote to what is called the baby boom.