March 7, 2000
The recently announced national population policy is built on the correct premise that population stabilisation is a matter of human development, not just of dealing with numbers. The policy has not included any disincentives, or coercive measures, despite the pressure on it from the fanatical few that argue for coercion and penalties as the only way to reduce numbers.
The policy also makes it clear that there can be no technical solutions to reducing the birth rate or lowering fertility, especially if they have to be sustainable. The immediate objectives are no doubt to address the unmet needs of contraception, improve the health infrastructure, and provide integrated service delivery for basic reproductive and child health care.
However, it is important to look at population stabilisation in the broader context of women’s health and enhancement of their capabilities. Success will depend upon a number of related factors including simultaneous improvements in education, child health care and better implementation thro-ugh effective decentralisation. Reductions in fertility are also contingent upon how effectively women get empowered over the next few years to gain access to education to make the right choices, and to influence decisions.
I still find that the policy is somewhat vague and ambiguous when it comes to implementation. Perhaps there are details in the Plan of Action that we have not had a chance to read. What will be done to ensure universal schooling until the age of 14 years? How will greater convergence be ensured? Will the proposed National Commission on Population with the Prime Minister as the chairperson, and all chief ministers as members, besides some professionals and representatives of NGOs, be effective? What will be the criteria for rewarding panchayats? Is a cash incentives of Rs 500 useful? Is it fair to link the disbursement of maternity benefit cash awards to compliance with ante-natal check up, institutional deliveries, registration of births and BCG immunisation when provisioning of such services is woefully inadequate and of extremely poor quality? How does the government propose to reward coupies below the poverty line if they marry after the legal age of marriage, register the marriage, have their first childafter the mother reaches the age of 21, accept the small family norm and adopt a terminal method after the birth of the second child? It seems incredibly complicated to set up a system to monitor people’s lives so closely. And state governments are announcing population policies that are in conflict with the national policy?
Also, the population policy is ominously silent on the issue of accountability. Who is responsible and for what? Success seems to depend upon how well we fare in the areas of education, decentralisation, nutrition, provisioning of safe water, infrastructure development, and so on. What will the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare be specifically responsible for? Will the ministry spell out quality criterion that must be met? Will the government list out the minimum services and reproductive choices that will be made available to every woman and family?
Formulation of the policy has once again fallen into the trap of thinking that the central government alone is responsible for population stabilisation. There can be no bigger fallacy. The states should have been included in the process and not just state governments but also many of the NGOs working in the field of reproductive and community health. A policy informed by the rich experiences of success would not have left so much to people’s imagination or lack of it.
Finally, to argue that the implementation of the population policy will rely on greater participation by government, non-government organizations and civil society amounts to almost saying nothing. The process of exclusion adopted in the formulation and announcement of the policy certainly did not help in garnering support.
It is beyond my understanding why the bureaucracy and the ministry was so secretive about the policy. It is one policy that affects the lives of every Indian, and it is sad that there was no discussion or debate or support enlisted from people whose lives it is intended to affect.
The writer is a film actress and member of the Rajya Sabha
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