A new population policy released by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has stated that it not only aims to bring fertility levels down, but also, notably, to “ensure there is a population balance among various communities”. In a state where the ruling BJP has not held back from putting polarisation over matters of inter-faith marriage, conversion or citizen protests to political use, it is difficult not to hear the communal dog-whistle in this demographic talk — especially with an assembly election only months away. Parallel to this, a draft of the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021, published a few days ago and inviting public feedback, makes clear its preference for punishment as a means of “population control”. It proposes that any citizen who “violates” a two-child policy not only be barred from contesting local bodies polls — similar restrictions exist in several other states — but also from applying for, or getting promotion in, government jobs, and even receiving government subsidy.
A policy or law that arms governments with more powers over citizens is erroneous for another fundamental reason: India is not being threatened by a “population explosion”. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and Census data show that in most states, and many urban areas, the total fertility rate (TFR) has already reached replacement levels (2.1). On a national level, TFR has declined from 3.4 in 1994 to 2.2 in 2015. Contrary to the paranoid demographic visions conjured by a section of Hindutva ideologues, decadal growth rates have declined across all religious communities, with the fertility rate falling faster among Muslims than in Hindus. Even in populous UP, the TFR has fallen an impressive 1.1 points to 2.7 in the span of a decade — without the state’s coercive measures. Indeed, China’s recent policy reversal of its restrictive child-bearing norms points to the limits of measures of state engineering of population, besides being anti-democratic.
The success of India’s southern states in containing population growth indicates that economic growth as well as attention to education, health and empowerment of women work far better to disincentivise larger families than punitive measures. In areas with high poverty, low economic growth and fewer educated women, fertility levels tend to be higher. Unfortunately, “population control,” appears to be making a comeback as a political catchphrase, ironically when “demographic dividend,” is seen more as a challenge rather than an opportunity. Any penal population policy, it follows, tends to doubly exclude the poor and the marginalised. There is also growing evidence that Indian women, across economic and social strata, would have fewer children if they could exercise their choice fully. Any government interested in supporting fertility decline, then, must go to work on the education and empowerment of women and respecting their choices. Another BJP chief minister, Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, has enforced the two-child condition for several public schemes, but tailored his pitch clearly to the “immigrant Muslim community”. In a country yet to recover from Covid-19’s second wave and a continuing economic crisis, the political class has surely more to do than decide family size for citizens.