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[Burning Issue] Coercive Population policy and related issues

In recent years, there have been ongoing debates, campaigns, and demands for the implementation of coercive population control policies in India. Evidence shows no effectiveness of policy measures enforcing a two-child or one-child norm and instead highlights their adverse outcomes. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) – 4 revealed that 24 states in the country have already achieved replacement level fertility of 2.1, which means that couples are increasingly choosing to have two children.

India’s declining fertility can largely be attributed to key determinants like the increasing emphasis on women’s education and their participation in the labor force.

Let us look at the future prospectus of population growth and related government policies and measures in India.

What are the causes of Over Population in India?

The two main common causes leading to overpopulation in India are:

(1) The birth rate is still higher than the death rate. We have been successful in declining the death rates but the same cannot be said for birth rates.

(2) The fertility rate due to the population policies and other measures has been falling but even then it is much higher compared to other countries.

Various social issues which are leading to overpopulation

  • Early Marriage and Universal Marriage System: Even though the marriageable age of a girl is legally 18 years, the concept of early marriage still prevails. Getting married at a young age prolongs the child bearing age.
  • Poverty and Illiteracy: Impoverished families have this notion that more the number of members in the family, more will be the numbers to earn income. Some feel that more children are needed to look after them in their old age. Indian still lags behind the use of contraceptives and birth control methods and are not willing to discuss or are totally unaware about them.
  • Age old cultural norm: Sons are the bread earners of the families in India. This age old thought puts considerable pressure on the parents to produce children till a male child is born.
  • Illegal migration: Last but not the least, we cannot ignore the fact that illegal migration is continuously taking place from Bangladesh and Nepal is leading to increased population density.

What are the effects of over-population?

Some major impacts of the high population are as follows:

Population Policy by Uttar Pradesh government

Recently, the government of Uttar Pradesh released a “Population Policy” in which it stated its intention to bring the gross fertility rate in the State down from the existing 2.7 to 2.1 by 2026.

What are the provisions in the Bill?

  • This draft law, titled the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill, 2021, seeks to provide a series of incentives to families that adhere to a two-child norm.
  • The Bill also intends on disentitling families that breach the norm from benefits and subsidies.
  • It promises public servants who undergo sterilization and adopt a two-child norm several benefits.
  • The draft Bill also contains a list of punishments.
  • A person who breaches the two-child norm will be debarred from securing the benefit of any government-sponsored welfare scheme and will be disqualified from applying to any State government job.
  • Existing government employees who infringe the rule will be denied the benefit of promotion.
  • Transgressing individuals will be prohibited from contesting elections to local authorities and bodies.

Issues with coercive population control policies

With such types of coercive population policies, there come a number of issues associated with them. Let us look at some issues in context with India.

(1) Counter-productive measure

  • International experience shows that any coercion to have a certain number of children is counter-productive and leads to demographic distortions.

(2) Against international obligations

  • India is committed to its obligations under international law, including the principles contained in the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, 1994.
  • Foremost in those principles was a pledge from nations that they would look beyond demographic targets and focus instead on guaranteeing a right to reproductive freedom.

(3) Against the right to reproductive freedom and privacy

  • In Suchita Srivastava & Anr vs Chandigarh Administration (2009), the Court found that a woman’s freedom to make reproductive decisions is an integral facet of the right to personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21.
  • This ruling was endorsed by the Supreme Court’s nine-judge Bench verdict in K.S. Puttaswamy vs Union of India (2017).
  • The Constitution sees a person’s autonomy over her body as an extension of the right to privacy. U.P.’s draft law, if enacted, will grossly impinge on the right to reproductive freedom.
  • However, In Javed & Ors vs State of Haryana & Ors (2003), the Court upheld a law that disqualified persons with more than two children from contesting in local body elections.
  • But the present UP Bill is far more disproportionate; therefore, the judgment in Javed can no longer be seen as good law.
  • The UP government will likely argue that there is no violation of privacy here because any decision on sterilization would be voluntary. But, as we know, making welfare conditional is a hallmark of coercion.
  • Therefore, the proposed law will fall foul of a proportionality analysis.

(4) Sex-selective practices and forced sterilizations

  • The Economic Survey of 2018 points out that ‘son meta preference’ – the desire to have a male child – has resulted in 21 million “unwanted girls” in India.
  • Imposing a two child norm will add to the burden on women, by way of sex selective practices and forced sterilizations.
  • In Devika Biswas vs Union of India (2016), the Court pointed to how these camps invariably have a disparate impact on minorities and other vulnerable groups.
  • This could result in a setback to population stabilization efforts, as it happened during the emergency period in mid-1970s

(5) Violation of human rights

  • A population control policy is not only a gross violation of fundamental human rights but will also have the maximum impact on the poorest, weakest and most marginalized sections of a country.
  • The National Population Policy, 2000 had “voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens while availing reproductive health care services, and continuation of the target-free approach in administering family planning services”.
  • A coercive population control measure would be in direct contradiction to the tenets of this policy.

(6) Impact poor and marginalized people adversely

  • Disincentives through denial of benefits under subsidized food grains through the PDS will impact the poorest and most marginalized sections of the population and worsen their impoverishment.

(7) High population is not always bad

  • A high population is not necessarily a bad thing for the economy.
  • Population controlling measures will result in:
    • There would simply not be enough people to work for the economy,
    • A large non-productive aging population to support and the government may not have enough resources to support pensions
    • This would lead to de-industrialization.

(8) Factor of religion

  • Religious polarization makes population control an even more contentious issue in India.
  • The bogey of population explosion is often used (directly or indirectly) to target a particular minority in India. The population controlling measure will impact social harmony.

China’s experience

China’s infamous one-child-per-couple policy and the subsequent two-child policy in 2015, have had several unintended consequences ranging from forced sterilizations and abortions to the abandonment of girl children, falling birth rates, skewed sex ratios, a rapidly growing ageing population, and a shrinking workforce.

What did we learn from our past experiences?

  • The implementation of a one-child or two-child policy law will not result in immediate population reduction.
  • Past trends in fertility and mortality from 1951 to 1981 have shaped the Indian population structure in such a way that there is a ‘bulge’ in the proportion of people in their prime reproductive age.
  • This group accounts for 53% of India’s population today. Even if this group were to produce fewer children compared to previous generations, there will still be an increase in the absolute number of people.
  • This pattern of growth is termed as “Population Momentum”. Approximately 70 percent of the total projected population increase today is due to this large young population in their childbearing years.
  • India with its large proportion of young persons will take some time before the results of declining fertility start showing explicitly.
  • The population of India in 1951 was 35 crore, but by 2011, it had increased to 121 crore. There have been few shortcomings.
    • Firstly, the NPP have a narrow perspective; give much importance to contraception and sterilization. The basic prerequisite of controlling population includes poverty alleviation, improving the standards of living and the spread of education.
    • Secondly, on national scale the policy was not publicized and failed to generate mass support in favor of population control.
    • Thirdly, we have insufficient infrastructure owing to the lack of trained staff, lack of adequate aptitude among the staff and limited use or misuse of the equipment for population control resulted in failure of the policy.
    • Lastly, the use of coercion during the Emergency (1976-77) caused a serious resentment among the masses. This made the very NPP itself very unpopular.

Way forward

  • Increasing the welfare and status of women and girls, spread of education, increasing awareness for the use of contraceptives and family planning methods, sex education, encouraging male sterilization and spacing births, free distribution of contraceptives and condoms among the poor, encouraging female empowerment, more health care centers for the poor, to name a few, can play a major role in controlling population.
  • The government should raise budgetary allocations in order to ensure expanded contraceptive choices for delaying and spacing births and better access and quality of health care for young people.
  • Social Measures: Population outburst is considered to be a social problem and it is intensely rooted in the civilization. It is therefore necessary to make efforts to eliminate the social iniquities in the country.
  • Minimum age of Marriage: As fertility depends on the age of marriage therefore the minimum age of marriage should be raised. In India minimum age for marriage is 21 years for men and 18 years for women fixed by law. This law should be strongly implemented and people should also be made aware of this through promotion.
  • Raising the Status of Women: There are prevalent biases to women. They are restricted to house. They are still confined to rearing and bearing of children. So women should be given opportunities to develop socially and economically. Free education should be given to them.
  • Spread education: The spread of education changes the views of people. The educated men take mature decisions and prefer to delay marriage and adopt small family custom. Educated women are health mindful and avoid frequent pregnancies and thus help in lowering birth rate.
  • Adoption: is also effective way to curb population. Some parents do not have any child, despite expensive medical treatment. It is recommended that they should adopt orphan children. It will be helpful to orphan children and children to couples.
  • Social Security: is necessary for people. It is responsibility of government to include more and more people under-social security schemes. So that they do not depend upon others in the event of old age, sickness, unemployment with these facilities they will have no desire for more children.
  • Economic Measures: Government must devise policies for more employment opportunities and development of Agriculture and Industry. When their income is increased they would enhance their standard of living and accept small family norms.
  • Urbanization: This can reduce population increase. It is reported that people in urban areas have low birth rate than those living in rural areas.
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