By Anugraha Hadke:
India’s 1.25 billion strong population is showing no signs of slowing down yet, and this consistent increase in numbers has been a cause for concern for decades. The impact this is having on our country’s resources and infrastructure has been discussed endlessly, with a few sporadic attempts being made to counter it. Following China’s lead, India made one such attempt to slow down the country’s population growth almost two and a half decades ago.
Loosely based on China’s one-child policy, the two-child norm was enacted by several state governments during the late 1990s. This, of course, came after the horrible failure of the Sanjay Gandhi led ‘family planning‘ initiative in the 70s that forced mass sterilisation upon individuals, especially women.
The two-child norm, however, disallowed people with more than two children from running for Panchayat elections in their villages. It was hoped that when the public saw their leaders adhering to it, they would be encouraged to follow suit. In fact, 11 states then went on to implement the rule for individuals as well, where parents with more than two children are now denied government benefits, health-care provisions, and even restricted from gaining promotions in government jobs.
As China has shown, while imposing such a restriction has proven to be effective in slowing down population growth, it has had some major consequences, for the worse, in both countries. And while China may have done away with the policy this year, it very much exists in the Indian states.
Old is not gold, not always: It is important to remember that the young population of today will be the old one of tomorrow. In a country that is on the cusp of becoming the youngest nation in the world, the two-child norm creates a negative population, which increases the number of senior citizens consuming public services more than the number of tax paying citizens. Additionally, it limits the number of educated young people who will contribute to the economy.
Boys over girls: But one of the most worrisome consequence of the policy has been the distortion of an already skewed child sex ratio. This very trend was seen in China with the one child policy where for every 100 newborn girls, there are 120 boys, making it the country with one of the worst sex ratios in the world.
Sons have largely been preferred in the Indian society for more reasons than one. They are seen as the ‘inheritors’ of the family name, the income generators, the ‘tickets to heaven’, caregivers, protectors, and more. Daughters rarely manage to come up to this level of importance.
In the face of a restriction on the number of children they could have, families have tried, by hook or crook, to ensure that those two children are both sons. Thereby causing an increase in gender-biased sex selection. In a state like Rajasthan, where the policy was implemented in 1992, the sex ratio that was 954 girls for 1000 boys in 1981, came down to 888 girls for 1000 boys by 2011. Unmindful, the state still continues to implement the policy, and has recently only relaxed it with respect to state employees, which is not likely to help the sex ratio. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh revoked the policy in 2000, followed by Himachal Pradesh and Haryana in 2005. States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh (as on 2013) still practice the norm.
Increase in violence against women: Apart from skewing the sex ratio, the combined forces of the two-child norm and son preference has also lead to an increase in instances of violence against women. Additionally, the two child norm hangs as a sword over the reproductive health and rights of women. A general lack of awareness denies them of the agency to exercise the right over their bodies on deciding how many children they wish to have. The preference for the male child which leads to gender-biased sex selection often forces women to terminate pregnancies that put their well-being at risk.
If a woman doesn’t bear the family a son then she is at fault, and so ‘deserves’ to be abused. In a situation where a woman is ‘unable’ to provide the family with a son, this is used give more weight to the excuse of divorcing her and abandoning her with no means to support herself. In a way, the two-child norm puts in danger the current, as well as the future generation of women in the country.
India’s population growth does need to be slowed down, that’s a fact. But using a coercive measure to do it may not be the best idea. In a country with limited literacy and education, where archaic ideas like son preference still exist, such measures will only prove harmful to our daughters. Till the time we are not educated and made aware as a society, no comprehensive measure is likely to succeed in curbing the population growth.