The Assam government’s draft population policy, which seeks to restrict access to government jobs on the basis of family size, has become a subject of controversy with the Opposition questioning the need for it when a national policy exists. Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, for his part, believes it can set the national template; he told journalists in Bhubaneswar the Assam government would suggest the Centre adopt it.
One controversial provision is that it seeks to bar persons with more than two children from government jobs and from contesting in elections to panchayats, municipal bodies, other statutory bodies and committees — apart from fixing a minimum educational qualification as eligibility criteria for contesting such polls “in aid of creating an educated society and political structure.”
Simultaneously, it proposes incentives for ensuring the two-children norm: additional grants to districts and gaon panchayats that exceed policy targets, awards to government hospitals and NGOs and self-help groups if all members follow the norm, to village heads and panchayats for better record-keeping, to schools for 100% retention of girls.
The text of the draft policy says the National Population Policy of 2000 had failed to achieve a number of goals. Though the national decadal growth rate declined from 21.5% for 1991-2001 to 17.6% for 2001-2011, it failed to meet targets for total fertility rate, infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate until 2015, it says. “Achieving a stable population by 2045 does not seem feasible (under NPP 2000),” it says. Justifying the two-child norm and citing SRS 2013 figures (see charts), the draft says Assam’s average family size is 5.5, above the national 4.45 according to Census 2011.
At several places, the policy mentions a “demographic challenge” and a “volatile population scenario” that “will inevitably lead to social tension and political instability”.
“The government has to take everyone into confidence while handling such a sensitive issue. The draft policy should be first discussed in the assembly,” said state PCC president Ripun Bora. Former CM Tarun Gogoi said, “There is a national population policy. Moreover, why only apply the two-child norm only to panchayats and municipal body polls?” In Bhubaneswar, Sarma said the government wants to extend that restriction to assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal, MP, calls the draft policy a violation of fundamental rights. Besides, he added, families with more than two children per family are mostly found among Muslims and SC and ST communities. “This policy, once implemented, will affect a large number of Muslims, the SC/ST people and the poor,” he said.
The policy has identified char (river) areas, tea belts and “some tribal areas” as responsible for the “demographic challenge”. It says while child marriage in age group 7-10 is “not prominent” in Assam, there are high incidences of marriage at 14-16 among girls and 16-20 among boys. “Some communities also have high incidences of underage marriage and polygamy. MMR is very high among inhabitants of char areas and the tea tribes,” it adds. Also, “existence of religious prejudices and conservative values against family planning is high among some communities. Only a tiny fraction of men opt to have vasectomies. Male sterilisation is viewed as culturally unacceptable among most of the communities.” It proposes to encourage NGOs and religious leaders who advocate the small family norm with grants and awards.
The draft policy proposes a task force to formulate an action plan on population and reproductive health, a State Population Council, a Population Resource Centre and committees at district, block and gram-panchayat levels to implement the policy.
The goals include maintaining a declining trend in fertility rate and achieving a stable population at least by mid-21st century, safe motherhood and reduced mortality, and gender equality.