16 Jul 2021 12:36 IST

The UP draft law puts population back on the political menu

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Coercive population control policies do not work. Only real social development can help in the long run

Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s would recall what a big deal the “population problem” was back then. The population growing at an exponentially faster rate than food captured the imagination of both the governments, policy makers, and public at large, world over.

The fact that forced sterilisation was such an integral part of the Emergency in the mid-1970s, and led to such tragic human rights abuses, bears testimony to this. Population control was very much in the public and policy domain those days.

People living the Hindi-speaking States were bombarded with slogans such as “Hum Do, Hamare Do” and “Chota Parivar, Sukhi Parivar.” In Tamil Nadu, “Athigam Peratheer, Avathi Padatheer,” which roughly translates as “don’t produce more kids and suffer,” were plastered on walls, and behind buses.

But by the 1980s population fell off the policy agenda and by the 1990s we even had a few economists, (leading among them was US’ Mancur Olson) who argued that a large and young population was a prerequisite for rapid growth especially in developing economies. The “demographic dividend” — where economies can leverage their young population into the workforce and drive growth — started gaining momentum.

When UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s unveiled the draft ‘Uttar Pradesh Population Policy 2021-2030’, last Sunday on World Population Day, population control was back on the agenda after almost three-and-a-half decades. Not to be left behind the Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka governments too are mulling a similar policy inspired by the UP CM.

If you thought that it was only the BJP-ruled States that were obsessing about population, think again. Congress-ruled Rajasthan’s Health Minister Raghu Sharma, gave a rousing endorsement to the Yogi’s policy and went even one step further calling for “Hum Do, Hamare Ek.” Incredibly, he was endorsing the one-child policy which has been abandoned even by China, its originator.

Ground reality

But what do the facts say? India’s fertility rate, according to the government’s Family Health Survey, points to a steady and impressive decline in total fertility rate over the last three decades — from 3.4 in 1992-93 to 2.2 in 2015-16, which is close to the 2.1 "replacement" rate vital for a stable population growth. This means in a society if women on average gave birth to 2.1 children, its total population would be steady or the number of people dying will be "replaced" by the number children being born.

All the southern States have a fertility rate which is much lower than the replacement rate with Kerala(1.6) and Tamil Nadu (1.7) in the lead. Several Northern States such as Punjab (1.6) and Himachal Pradesh (1.6) have fertility rates below the replacement rate.

Ironically, Uttar Pradesh, despite its unfortunate ‘BIMARU’ tag, too hasmade impressive strides on this front by bringing down its fertility rate to 2.7, which is expected to touch 2.1 by 2025.

But what are worrying are some of the provisions in the draft policy. People having more than two children will not be eligible to apply for a government job or contest local body elections. To be fair to the UP Chief Minister, this provision exists in several other States. Even the Supreme Court has upheld the validity of such laws.

Though it does have some welcome provisions such as focus on reducing maternal and child mortality at the heart of the policy also lies a paradox. Though the law is supposed to be “voluntary” there is also an in-built element of coercion in it. Government officials adhering to the two-child norm will be given out-of-turn promotions, increments, subsidy for building house, and paternity leave.

But the most worrying aspect of this policy is that people having more than two children will not be eligible for any government welfare measures and will also be barred from applying for government jobs.

This will hit the poor as many commentators have rightly remarked. The poor for purely economic reasons tend to have bigger families and with this policy are likely to be excluded from government welfare measures that they so desperately need.

Also, it has been proved beyond doubt that coercive population control policies do not work and the best way to reduce fertility rates and population is by bringing about social and economic development. Boosting women’s empowerment, both within and outside the family, is a proven method to bring down fertility rates as shown by the southern States.

The politics of policy

So why did the UP government bring about this policy? Some commentators have said that the reasons are purely political with the UP elections, which is always seen as a bellwether of Indian politics, due early next year. Chief among them is former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi, who in a recent article on The Print news website argues that the policy, brought in so close to the elections, is to drive a wedge between the Hindu and Muslim communities and stoke the common myth that Muslims have larger families.

But the irony is that this policy will equally hit the Hindu poor and will likely cost votes to the BJP in the next elections.

Whatever the reasons, population policy, which had been given a quiet burial is unfortunately back in the news now.