Framing the population stabilisation measures announced by Assam and Uttar Pradesh in political terms is as inevitable as it is unfortunate. Whether or not the proposals are equitable depends on the eye of the beholder, but containing population growth in these states is definitely desirable.
The two-child norm has always been a central pillar of population stabilisation, supported by a package of incentives and disincentives. In states that have been unable to adequately reduce their TFRs (total fertility rate), the disincentives are proposed to be enhanced, and this has provoked a hue and cry.
A section of economists have it that population stabilisation per se should be junked. They argue that in times to come, India’s youth bulge will prove a massive advantage, even as greying populations in the west put an unsustainable burden on their respective economies.
Statistics on below replacement rate TFRs in various parts of the country and the globe are trotted out to support the ‘more babies, not less’ argument. China’s rollback of its one-child policy is invariably held up as an example, ignoring the fact that it remained in place for 37 years and was only abandoned when births fell below the replacement rate.
The trouble is that economists work in silos, rarely factoring in human suffering and the health of the environment. The true measure of overpopulation is the per capita availability of water, land and other non-renewable resources which directly impact standards of living. Access to these resources is much lower in India than in most of the world.
Perils of population pressure
Population pressure leads to over-exploitation of farmland and water, pollution and deforestation. This, in turn, triggers violent conflicts over fast-diminishing resources at all levels – between state governments, communities and individuals. Not to mention the increased risk of pandemics and the devastating consequences for all the life-forms who share our planet. Where is our humanitarianism when we routinely evict animals from their habitats to feed our growing numbers and consumption-oriented lifestyles?
India would do better to focus on improving standards of education, so as to enhance skills and employability, and on boosting per capita productivity, instead of the number of jobseekers. Investment in enhancing the lives and prospects of our children will yield better results than adding more to the population. The working-age demographic bulge becomes a dividend only if employment rates are rising sharply, and if ecological sustainability is not a major concern. Currently, both unemployment and environmental degradation are on the increase.
These are temporary glitches, say the economists. Eventually, the population will stabilise and we will have more productive people than not. But by that time, the ecological damage may be irretrievable. Spiritual leader Jaggi ‘Sadhguru’ Vasudev underlines the environmental dimension of overpopulation when he says, “Young women who consciously decided not to bear a child should be awarded, as the only true problem on the planet is unprecedented population”.
Regional demographic imbalances and their disruptive potential must also be taken into account. The states of the south have consistently had lower TFRs than the north, with the result that the fresh delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies will see their seat share in the Lower House of Parliament severely depleted. The balance of power will tip heavily towards the Gangetic belt, with unpredictable consequences.
Further, the interests of gender justice would be better served by the two-child norm, in a country where most women do not enjoy control over reproductive choices. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (who has just one son) is quite right when he argues that “When women are aware and educated, that is how the population growth rate will reduce”. Certainly, empowering women socially and financially would be preferable to passing legislation. But by Nitish’s logic, Bihar – which has the highest fertility rate – has been the slowest in empowering its women.
As for equity, the proposed population stabilisation measures are community-agnostic in themselves. In all communities, some individuals will choose to sacrifice access to jobs, subsidies and political power in favour of large families, while others will not. The argument that population stabilisation is inherently anti-minority doesn’t wash.
Consider the fact that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has objected to the UP’s draft population Bill. It has cited the example of China in its submission to the Law Commission, but also implied that the new law would work to the advantage of minority communities.
Ideally and rationally, the bar on contesting elections to local bodies (for those who violate the two-child norm), should have been extended to Parliament and state assemblies. However, that falls within the purview of the Centre and not the state governments. Odisha, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are among the states with a similar policy.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (both bachelors) are ardent supporters of population stabilisation, so neither the latter’s initiative nor the opposition to it, comes as a surprise.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author