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Emergency without an Emergency? The two-child norm for panchayat members

By Mohan Rao

Laws to empower dalits, adivasis, OBCs and other sections of the poor through local self-government institutions are being circumvented by anti-democratic population policies. Indeed, if today fertility is to be a marker for citizenship, can the day be far behind when religion is?

Historical memories are notoriously weak, but the Emergency, not too long ago, was a period when the trains supposedly ran on time, and the government finally showed political will in the implementation of the family planning programme. It was also a period when the right to strike was abrogated. Both these measures met with widespread middle class support. Never mind that the Emergency period also witnessed the death of 1,774 people due to what were called "family planning excesses", the highest mortality toll imposed by a "welfare" measure throughout the world. These "excesses" also cast a deep dark shadow over the family planning programme from which it is still to recover.

In recent weeks the Supreme Court of India has passed two judgements that eerily recall this period. Do we then have an Emergency declared by the judiciary? The first is the judgement on July 30. A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court upheld a Haryana government law prohibiting a person from contesting or holding the post of sarpanch or panch in a Panchayati Raj Institution (local self-government) if he or she had more than two children. The Bench observed that "disqualification on the right to contest an election for having more than two children does not contravene any fundamental right, nor does it cross the limits of reasonability. Rather, it is a disqualification conceptually devised in the national interest". A few days later, on August 6, the Supreme Court also passed a judgement that prohibits government employees from resorting to strike.

While trade unions and some political parties have reacted sharply to the second judgement, there has been widespread approbation among the middle classes and the elites to the first. Political parties and trade unions have of course remained largely silent.

But this is not only a serious misreading of the relationship between population and resources, it is also an egregious assault on the fitful process of democratisation in our country. Indeed it is thoughtless folly that laws to empower dalits, adivasis, OBCs and other sections of the poor through PRIs are being circumvented by these imaginatively anti-democratic population policies.

When the "population bomb" predicted by neo-Malthusian doomsday Cold Warrior demographers failed to materialise, when it was understood that one reason for the failure of family planning programmes globally was the constraints on women's agency, the international population control movement - with the western feminist movement providing the leadership - initiated what has been described as a "paradigm shift". One central aspect of the paradigm shift is that family planning services are to be broadened in order to attend to women's - and indeed men's -- reproductive needs and rights and not as a function of control of a non-existent "population explosion".

There is a vast amount of empirical evidence of the profoundly anti-Malthusian relationship between population and resources. Tilly, on the basis of a historical review, concluded: "Over the long run, population growth and economic expansion generally accompany each other. Likewise economic decline and demographic contraction tend to occur together" (Tilly 1978: 24).[1] The classic by Habakkuk on population growth in 18th-century England outlines five ways in which substantial population increase stimulated economic growth (Habakkuk 1971).[2] Kuznets concluded that, other things being equal, population growth also has a positive effect on savings (Kuznets 1956).[3] Indeed, examining regional statistics on the growth of population and industry, the favourable economic effects of population density and population growth are "confirmed to an embarrassing degree" (Clark1968:279)[4]. One striking empirical truth in the history of health is that improvements in human longevity have been associated with increases in human populations. A graph of the growth of populations superimposed on that of human longevity reveals their astonishingly close association. All these lessons were lost to us in Cold War politics that brought to the fore a completely different, and alarming, understanding of the issue.

A more recent and comprehensive 1986 review sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences issued a cautiously worded statement, to the dismay of the community of doomsday demographers, noting that population growth has both positive and negative impacts and that the actual net impact cannot be determined based on existing evidence.

Reflecting both this understanding, and the commitments made at the ICPD in 1994 in Cairo in February 2000, the Government of India adopted the National Population Policy 2000 (NPP). One undoubtedly positive feature of the NPP is that it resolutely affirms the "commitment of the government towards voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens while availing of reproductive health care services, and continuation of the target-free approach in administering family planning services" (GOI: 2000:2)[5]. Committing itself to respect for human rights and the freedom and dignity of women, these were translated into a non-target-oriented family welfare programme, which rightly abjured incentives and disincentives.

Several state governments on the other hand, some at the behest of an American consultancy firm, Futures Group, whose function it has been to recreate fears of the population explosion, announced population policies which very significantly violate the letter and the spirit of the NPP.

Andhra Pradesh, that dream experimental state of the World Bank, lists an astonishing series of incentives and disincentives. At the community level, performance in reproductive child health (RCH) and rates of couple protection will determine the construction of school buildings, public works and funding for rural development programmes. Performance in RCH is also to be made the criterion for full coverage under programmes like TRYSEM, DWCRA, Weaker Section Housing Scheme, and Low Cost Sanitation Scheme. Allotment of surplus agricultural land, housing sites, as well as benefits under IRDP, SC Action Plan, and BC Action Plan are to be given in preference to acceptors of terminal methods of contraception. Educational concessions, subsidies and promotions as well as government jobs are to be restricted to those who accept the small family norm. Shockingly, a lottery with an award of Rs 10,000 is to be given to three couples to be selected from every district on the basis of a lucky dip. The eligible include three couples per district with two girl children adopting permanent methods of family planning, three couples per district with one child adopting permanent methods of family planning and three couples per district with two or less children adopting vasectomy.

The population policies of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh also carry many of these features. All of them debar women with more than two children from contesting elections to Panchyati Raj Institutions. The Uttar Pradesh population policy also disqualifies persons married before the legal age of marriage from government jobs, as if children are responsible for child marriages. Further, 10% of financial assistance to Panchayats is to be based on family planning performance. Indeed, fearfully recalling the Emergency, the assessment of the performance of medical officers and other health workers is linked to performance in the RCH programme.

A number of health groups and women's groups in the country have repeatedly protested these draconian features of state population policies. Their objections are based on compelling grass-roots experience that pointed out that these disincentives and incentives are anti-women,
anti-adivasi, anti-dalit, anti-child and anti-poor in general. They are also
profoundly violative of human and democratic rights and commitments made by the Government of India in several international covenants.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for 1998-99 shows that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is 3.15 for Scheduled Castes, 3.06 for Scheduled Tribes, 2.66 among Other Backward Castes and 3.47 among illiterate women as a whole. It is, in contrast, 1.99 among better-off women and thus likely to be educated beyond the tenth grade. Imposition of the two-child norm, and the disincentives proposed, would mean that the majority of these already deprived populations would bear the brunt of the state's withdrawal of ameliorative measures, pitiably inadequate as they are. With the recent Supreme Court judgement the majority of these populations will be debarred from their right to contest elections in one fell stroke. This is in fact another guise of the old property requirement for franchise in the years before universal suffrage.

In the states where these laws have been imposed, as in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, scores of cases have been documented where women have been deserted, or forced to undergo sex-selective abortions. Children have also been abandoned or given up for adoption. In general, such a norm provides an impetus for an increase in sex-selective abortions, worsening an already terrible child sex ratio in the country.

As the NPP itself acknowledges, there is a large need for health and safe contraceptive services. To propose punitive measures in this context is clearly absurd. Reflecting deprivation, the dalits, adivasis and Other Backward Castes bear a significantly higher proportion of the mortality load in the country.

The NFHS for 1998-99 notes that the Infant Mortality Rate(IMR) among the SCs, STs and Other Backward Castes is 83, 84 and 76 respectively, compared to 62 for Others. Similarly the under-5 mortality rate is 119 among the SCs, 126 among the STs, 103 among the OBCs, compared to 82 among the Others. Clearly, to impose a two-child norm under such circumstances is to widen inequalities among our people. Would the Supreme Court consider, equally, a norm for child survival?

Health and women's groups approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) last year with a memorandum that the two-child norm was discriminatory, anti-democratic and violative of commitments made by the Government of India in several international covenants. The NHRC, obviously convinced of some aspects of this case, in response issued orders to the concerned state governments. At a National Colloquium on January 9 and 10, 2003, attended by representatives of these state governments, a Declaration was issued.

This NHRC Declaration "notes with concern that population policies framed by some State Governments reflect in certain respects a coercive approach through use of incentives and disincentives, which in some cases are violative of human rights. This is not consistent with the spirit of the National Population Policy. The violation of human rights affects, in particular the marginalised and vulnerable sections of society, including women".

Of special interest to the learned judges of the Supreme Court should be that the Declaration also noted: "further that the propagation of a two-child norm and coercion or manipulation of individual fertility decisions through the use of incentives and disincentives violate the principle of voluntary informed choice and the human rights of the people, particularly the rights of the child".

We thus have the piquant situation where judges of the Supreme Court are apparently unaware of these serious concerns of the NHRC. It needs to be recalled that there is a significant demographic transition occurring in the country; to hasten this requires investments in health, education, food and employment - all areas being compromised by neo-liberal policies. What is clearly not required are counter-productive punitive measures. It also perhaps needs to be recalled that given the age structure of the population, there is an in-built momentum which coercive measures can do nothing about.

There also needs to be discussion about the function of justice. Perhaps it is now naïve to believe that this is to uphold truth; and that it is also to enhance freedoms and opportunities and not curtail them in the interests of ill-defined national objectives. But if today fertility is to be a marker for citizenship, can the day be far behind when religion is?

(Mohan Rao teaches at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

  1. Tilly, Charles (1978), "Introduction" in Charles Tilly (Ed), Historical      Studies of Changing Fertility, Princeton University Press New Jersey.
  2. Habakkuk, John (1971), Population Growth and Economic Development      since 1750, Leicester University Press, Leicester.
  3. Kuznets, Simon (1956), Economic Development and Cultural Change,     Chicago University Press, Chicago.
  4. Clark, Colin (1968), Population Growth and Land Use, Macmillan,      London.
  5. Government of India (2000) Ministry of Health and Family Welfare,     National Population Policy 2000, New Delhi.

InfoChange News & Features, August 2003