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Explained: Why Population Control Won’t Work Till It Remains A Political Issue

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The issue of population control has become a topic of hot debate after the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) announced a draft Population Control Bill 2021 on World Population Day 2021.

BJP ruled Assam has already passed a resolution in the State Assembly regarding the same, and have introduced measures discouraging people to have more than two children. Thus, the Governments of Uttar Pradesh and Assam are pushing for the two-child norm (TCN) population policy despite scant evidence that it works.

Is there any hidden agenda?

The paper stresses that India has to stop looking at the issue of the population from a religious angle. The issue is more about the availability of quality services; gender equity and human development since an overwhelming majority of Indians do not want more children.

Some 45 years ago, in the late seventies, India embarked on an ambitious population control programme to curb the increasing population pressure on the nation. It was the brainchild of the then PM Indira Gandhi, and her son, Sanjay Gandhi, who oversaw the execution. But its implementation was flawed, so Indians did not support the most pertinent, sensible, and timely population control programme.

Sterilisation (of butter). Credit: Harper Collins

Since then, population control in India has always been a political rather than a social-economical issue.

Our political leaders rig out the population issue whenever they see some political advantages, especially in terms of electoral gains or vote bank politics, and then keep mum.

The latest example is the ‘Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021, which was unveiled by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath just ahead of the Assembly elections to be held in early 2022.

Salient Features Of The Bill

Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most populous state of India, is currently home to 17.1% of the country’s population. The state also holds the top position in the high population growth rate in India. It is witnessing an annual growth of around 2% in its population which is very high as compared to the national average of around 1%.

The total population of the state was 8.8 crores in 1971. It increased to 11.1 crores in 1981 and then reported to be 19.9 crores in 2011. The estimated population of the state in 2021 was 24.1 crore, as per the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India.

The Bill’s target is to bring the total fertility rate to 2.1 per woman by 2026 and to 1.9 by 2030.

To achieve the target, the policy proposes that people having more than two children in the state should not be granted any special benefits and should be barred from using official concessions.  It means any couple who follows the policy would receive perks from the State.

These incentives are linked to the government schemes, government jobs, promotions and welfare measures etc. which would be a driving force for those who wish to avail the benefits from the government.

“We have proposed that any couple that follows the two-child policy will be given all government benefits,” said State’s Law Commission Chairman Aditya Nath Mittal.   “If somebody doesn’t follow this policy, they won’t be eligible for such schemes. Their ration card will be restricted to four units. They will not be able to apply for Government jobs and if they are already Government employees, then they won’t get a promotion,” Mittal added.

Meanwhile listing out benefits for public servants who adopt the two-child policy, the draft Bill said, “Public servants who adopt the two-child norm will get two additional increments during the entire service, maternity or as the case may be, paternity leave of 12 months, with full salary and allowances and three per cent increase in the employer’s contribution fund under the national pension scheme.”

There are also provisions to provide exemptions in water, electricity, house tax, home loan, and other such facilities to couples with two children who are not in Government jobs.

In short, the draft Bill proposes a bunch of monetary incentives to be conferred to the people of the state in lieu of the two-child norm. It is stressed that adherence to the policy will be a voluntary exercise and it will not make distinctions based on caste, creed and economic class. In that sense, the proposed policy is a sensible one.

It has, however, racked up a political debate regarding demography not in the state but in the country too. It is a well-planned strategy by the BJP government at the Centre to be used later to draft a national policy on population control. 

Will Policy Achieve Its Objectives?

In the past, some states have adopted the concept of the two-child Norm to control the surging population. In general, however, they have failed in bringing down the fertility or population growth rates as desired. However, there is evidence that such measures could lead to negative consequences such as increases in sex-selective practices and unsafe abortions, especially given the strong son preference in the country.

Based on an analysis, the author came to the conclusion that any policy based on the incentives and disincentives could not have any positive effective impact on fertility unless they are backed by quality family planning services (Refer: Relevance of Two-Child Norm in emerging demographic scenario of India).

Yogi adityanath
Representational image.

For example, Madhya Pradesh aimed at achieving the replacement level fertility of 2.1 children per woman by 2011 but it was far from the targeted goal – it recorded a TFR of 3.1 in 2011.  The same can be said about other states except for Andhra Pradesh (Table 1, Col. 6).

The table also indicates the emerging north-south demographic divide.

What Should India Do?

Do Indians want more children? The current population growth in India is mainly fueled by unwanted and unplanned fertility. The National Family Health Surveys (NFHSs) provide estimates of the total or actual fertility and wanted fertility rates.

Based on these and other data, it is estimated that around five in ten live births are unintended or simply unwanted by the women who experienced them, and such births trigger continued high population growth (1). Around 24 million children were born in India in 2020, and out of this about 13 million births could be classified as unwanted. It is estimated that around 480 million people out of the total population of 1,400 million in 2021 were the result of unplanned pregnancies.

With such a large number of people resulting from unwanted pregnancies, how can one think about using them for nation-building?

The consequences of unwanted pregnancy are being reflected in widespread malnutrition, poor health, low quality of education, and increasing scarcity of basic resources like food, water and space.

While India’s population continues to grow by 15-16 million people annually, around five million women in the reproductive ages, especially those in the lower economic strata including Muslims wish to postpone childbearing, space births or stop having children; however, they are not using modern contraceptives. This is also known as the ‘unmet need’ for contraception.

Often, these women travel far from their communities to reach a health facility, only to return home ‘empty handed’ due to shortages, stockouts, lack of desired contraception and/or non-availability of doctors and paramedical staff. When women have thus turned away, they are unable to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

This type of incomplete control over the reproductive process leads to relatively high levels of unwanted childbearing and reduces the prospects for an early onset of the population stabilisation process; and that is really happening in the Hindi speaking states.

Representational image.

The biggest obstacle to population control is the non-fulfilment of the demand for family planning services.

Despite poverty and illiteracy, modern family planning services are in big demand among Muslims as well, but they are as inadequate as other communities. Measures need to be taken to fulfil it and not talk of animosity. Instead of stopping the growth of the population by enacting laws, only easy availability of quality family planning services can give better success. Further, the problem of population explosion should not be seen as a ‘Hindu versus Muslim’ problem, but as a problem common to both the communities and should be taken seriously.

The policymakers have to understand that the situation has changed dramatically in the last three decades, and there is no need to implement coercive methods or laws to control the population. The number of Indian women, including Muslims, wanting to have another baby is falling fast, as per the NFHS-4 (2015-16). Only 24% of married women aged between 15 and 49 years wanted a second child.

Incidents of unplanned pregnancies can be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated, within the next five years by simply providing reproductive services as per the needs of clients, as had been done in Andhra Pradesh during the nineties by using strategies like Vikalp (2).

If Andhra—with little outside help—could manage its population growth under relatively low literacy (Literacy Rate of Andhra in 2011 was 67.7 per cent compared to 69.7 per cent in UP), there is no reason why other states, especially, Four Large North Indian (FLNI) States of Bihar, MP, Rajasthan and UP—with lesser problems and increasingly generous support from the Centre—should fail so spectacularly in managing unwanted fertility.

A user-friendly service delivery system can help address the causes that lie at the root of unwanted fertility. At the same time, investment in human development has to be increased in enhancing labour productivity. Encouraging women’ paid employment could be a miracle step as has been seen in Bangladesh.

In conclusion, India has to make the issue of population stabilization a non-political one.

The country has to find a way of talking about religious demography that is judicious and logical so that the debate on the subject can take place without any fuss, outrage and annoyance. If the economy is to be allowed to grow uninterrupted, the issue of the Hindu-Muslim population must be thoroughly but seriously discussed while fighting the rumour and hate-mongers.

This is necessary because apparently Indian Muslims want to be part of the mainstream of the Indian culture, as noted in the Foreword written by the author for the book, The Population Myth by S.Y. Quraishi.

In sum, not only Uttar Pradesh and Assam but other states with high fertility need an effective people-centric population control policy. For this, the draft Uttar Pradesh population control bills must be redrafted in the light of the above discussion. Also, the revised bill must incorporate measures to be adopted in order to create job opportunities for women. Such a population control strategy/bill could be a role model for the country as a whole.

Table 1 Trends in decadal population growth (%) and number of children/woman (in parentheses), some selected states of India

State/Year 1981 1991 2001 2011 2017
1 2 3 4 5 6
Bihar 24.16

(5.7)

23.38

(4.4)

28.62

(4.3)

25.07

(3.6)

NA

(3.2)

Madhya Pradesh 27.16

(5.20

27.27

(4.6)

24.34

(4.0)

20.23

(3.1)

NA

(2.7)

Rajasthan 32.97

(5.2)

28.44

(4.6)

28.33

(4.1)

21.40

(3.0)

NA

(2.7)

Uttar Pradesh 25.39

(5.8)

25.55

(5.1)

25.86

(4.7)

20.10

(3.4)

NA

(3)

India 24.66

(4.5)

23.86

(3.6)

21.54

(3.2)

17.64

(2.4)

NA

(2.2)

Andhra Pradesh 23.10

(4.0)

24.20

(3.0)

13.86

(2.3)

11.10

(1.8)

NA

(1.7)

Karnataka 23.79

(3.6)

21.12

(3.1)

17.25

(2.4)

15.70

(1.9)

NA

(1.7)

Kerala 19.24

(2.8)

14.32

(1.8)

09.42

(1.8)

04.90

(1.8)

NA

(1.8)

Tamil Nadu 17.50

(3.4)

15.39

(2.2)

11.19

(2.0)

15.50

(1.7)

NA

(1.6)

Source: Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
  1.  Kothari, Devendra (2014): “Managing Unwanted Fertility in India: Way Forward” in Suresh Sharma and William Joe.  (Eds.)   National Rural Health Mission: An Unfinished Agenda, pp 25-36, Bookwell, New Delhi.)
  2. (Kothari, Devendra et al. (1997): ‘Vikalp: Managing Family Planning Programme in the Post-ICPD Era’, Occasional Paper No. 2, Indian Institute of Health Management Research).
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