Assam’s draft population policy, announced by state Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Sunday, is a throwback to an era when governments imposed family planning through coercion. It chooses to ignore the lessons of those times and the debates and experiences from across the world since then on the most enlightened and efficient ways to address population growth. India’s own aggressive sterilisation drive during the Emergency years and China’s one-child policy were disastrous state interventions that had to be rolled back. India’s National Population Policy of 2000 underlined “voluntary and informed choice” and consent of citizens while availing of reproductive healthcare services, and continuation of the target-free approach in administering family planning services. The policy discourse today is no more about population control, but focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Assam seems oblivious of these conversations as it leans on coercive measures to drive what Sarma has called its “population control” policy. Arguably, the state government’s concern about the high rate of population growth — the decadal growth stands at 17 per cent, though it has been falling — and its impact on the state’s physical and financial resources is understandable. But the government is wrong to blame the citizens and to penalise them for it. The draft policy proposes to bar people with more than two children from accessing government jobs and makes it mandatory for government servants to “strictly follow” the two-child norm and to serve as “role models”. It has also proposed to bring in legal provisions to disallow people with more than two children from participating in local bodies elections and to introduce minimum educational qualifications as eligibility criteria for contesting elections. What such a policy refuses to acknowledge is that high population growth rate is also the result of the government’s failure to provide healthcare facilities to citizens. Studies suggest that improvement in institutionalised child delivery and post-natal care, and making contraceptives available in rural areas have a positive impact on population growth. This is the experience also of states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which stabilised their populations by improving public health facilities.
The proposals in Assam’s draft policy will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society most by limiting their access to state resources and participation in the electoral process. A large percentage of Assam’s poor are Muslims, who, many increasingly dominant narratives in the state blame for the rise in population, which gives a communal edge to Sarma’s draft policy.