Updated: July 20, 2021 8:12:46 am
The Uttar Pradesh Law Commission released the draft of the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021 on July 19, days before the state’s chief minister unveiled a new population policy. The overall objective of the proposed law is the welfare of the people of the state by promoting the two-child norm. Assam has embarked on a similar policy recently; Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said that the policy is meant to help the development of the minority community in Assam.
The UP draft Bill, as with all population-control laws, starts with a noble objective before it starts listing the incentives and disincentives. The carrot-and-stick approach to population control has been in vogue for a long time in India.
Since Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, the idea of a population explosion has been something many policy-makers have been afraid of. The Green Revolution was successful in making India self-sufficient in foodgrains and avoiding the famines that were predicted in The Population Bomb. Many experts have said that the authors’ fear of overpopulation was primarily a fear of poverty and its associated signs, like crowds and squalor.
The notion of an exploding population is deeply ingrained in our society and the idea of restricting couples from having more children keeps cropping up as a policy solution. If all couples have two or fewer children, it seems logical that the population will stop growing. China adopted a one-child norm in 1979, which was later relaxed in stages. These restrictions were finally lifted earlier this year and China now officially encourages couples to have more children.
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In India, successive rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) indicate that family size has declined considerably across states. In UP, too, most young couples already have two children. Despite this decline in fertility, the population keeps growing. Demographers call this the “population momentum”. It is important to understand that even if all the couples in UP were to have two children from tomorrow, the population will continue to grow. This is because of the large number of young people in the state. Unlike in the past, the population is growing not because couples have more children, but because we have many more young couples today.
The argument that controlling the population will increase the natural resource base is also faulty. It is more important to review consumption patterns. The rich consume far more natural resources and contribute much more to greenhouse gas emissions than the poor, whose numbers such laws often aim to control.
The draft Bill aims to regulate the whole ambit of government benefits, including government jobs, development schemes and even access to rations or subsidised food through the two-child norm. The advisers to the government have made two fatal miscalculations in the way they propose to implement the law.
The Draft proposes to use sterilisation operations, tubectomy or vasectomy. If the law is successful in its intent, millions of couples would have sterilisation operations, not necessarily in the most aseptic conditions. Since a sterilisation certificate will be the only way to ensure access to government benefits, these couples would have their two children in quick succession followed by a sterilisation operation. If, instead, they opted for spacing and their children were born over a longer period, the population growth rate would be slower. UP could end up facing the contradiction of low fertility and high birth rates and an overall higher population in the short run.
There is also a political miscalculation in the proposed law, which the existing dispensation may wish to avoid with elections next year. The two-child norm will be applied prospectively. To qualify as the “third child”, it will have to be born one year after the notification of the law. All couples with three or more children, who have completed their reproductive lives, will not fall under the ambit of the law. The law discriminates against the youth. While all older persons are automatically exempt, younger couples will be at risk.
UP is a young state — a third of its population belongs to the youth. The law proposes to potentially exclude them from government jobs, schemes and subsidies. Data clearly show that it is the poor who vote most enthusiastically in the hope that they get a government that will support their needs. The proposed law is not only unnecessary and harmful but can potentially lead to political and demographic disaster.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 20, 2021 under the title ‘Road to demographic distress’. The writer is managing trustee, Centre for Health and Social Justice, India and Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle
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