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Two-child norm puts panchayats under pressure

By Rashme Sehgal

The mandatory two-child norm for panchayat members, that exists in many Indian states, is proving to be more divisive than productive, with many women being forced to step down from their posts despite having little say in the number of children they have

In Rajasthan, a woman sarpanch was forced to smuggle her one-month-old baby to her mother's house, located 120 km away from her home. The child is being brought up by its grandmother. "If I had not done so, the villagers around me would have complained to the local collector and I would have been disqualified from my post," says Sitara Devi who lives near Kotah.

In Madhya Pradesh, an equally frightened Ahmed Hasan, who lives 80 km away from Bhopal, sent his newborn son to live with his elder brother for fear that the local sarpanch would complain about him because he had had his third child.

Hasan points out that before his election to the post he had done a great deal of work in the village. "I could not let all that go waste simply because I had failed to comply with the mandatory two-child norm."

Presently, six states including Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have made the two-child norm mandatory for all panchayat members. The governments of all these states insist that those with more than two living children are debarred from contesting panchayat elections or remaining in office. With the minimum age for contesting elections having been lowered from 26 to 21 years, this immediately affects lakhs of younger men and women within the reproductive age-group.

The passing of the 73rd constitutional amendment made it mandatory for 33% of all panchayat seats to be reserved for women. It also mandated quotas for socially marginalised sections including dalits and those belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SC/STs).

But it's the two-child policy that has had the greatest impact on women and marginalised sections of society. Nirmala Buch, who runs a Bhopal-based NGO, Mahila Chetna Manch (MCM), points out that already 412 panchayat members in Rajasthan have been removed from their posts, over the past three years, because they failed to comply with the two-child norm.

Buch says: "In Madhya Pradesh, 350 panchayat members have been removed and in Haryana the number of those removed is 275. In Madhya Pradesh, all those who were removed from their posts were tribals. They are not with the laws of the land, and instead of encouraging them to join this process they are being forced to turn away."

Buch is in the process of tabulating the figures of those removed in Orissa, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. The MCM was asked to conduct a study on the impact of the two-child policy by UNIFEM. Buch claims her organisation has interviewed several thousand panchayat members in order to compile the report. Most of the people who have been removed, she says, are either Muslims or belong to SC/STs and other backward castes (OBCs).

Women are undoubtedly the worst affected. The majority have no say over exercising their reproductive choices. And, with preference for a male son continuing to be the norm especially at the village level, families have no objection to women stepping down from their posts in order to give birth to at least two or three sons.

Twenty-six-year-old Kalavati, from a village outside Bundi in Rajasthan, points out: "Being an OBC, I was elected on a reserved seat. During the first term I was too scared to open my mouth and remained a rubber stamp member. It was only during my second term that I began to speak out. The birth of my third child forced me to step down. The government only talks of helping us. If they had wanted to they could have allowed me to continue since I was working to improve the lot of others in my village."

Panchayat members consider their position as stepping-stones in their political careers. They also see it as a major boost to their career prospects. As a result they are willing to go to any lengths to cover up the birth of a third child. From opting to send their pregnant wives away for two to three years, to divorce, to alleging infidelity, to getting their third child adopted, to producing fake birth certificates.

Buch says: "As it is, village politics is getting so divisive. This encourages people to spy on each other and accelerate caste divisions."

Certain states have gone to the extent of laying down a diktat that government jobs too would be denied to people who have more than two children. Those already in service would not be promoted for five years if they opted to have a third child. This rule is already being implemented in Rajasthan; other state governments including Maharashtra, Delhi and Gujarat are keen to introduce it. If they have not already done so it is only because several NGOs oppose the move.

The rule has been criticised by both the National Population Policy and the ministry of health. They point out that the entire thrust of the new panchayat policy is to get more and more young people to join politics. Ministry officials point out that with contraception and safe family practices not always being available at the village level, a cast-iron rule like this is bound to backfire.

The state governments are only too aware of the high infant mortality rates that persist at the village level. This fact seems to have been completely bypassed when the rule was being introduced.

Prasanna Hota, secretary at the ministry of family welfare, says: "We have been trying to convince state governments not to favour incentives or disincentives for restricting family size. But this does not work at the ground level."

Mani Shankar Aiyar, panchayati raj minister, is obviously unhappy with the implementation of the two-child norm. He says: "Unfortunately, this is a state subject and should be challenged at the state level. Or else, some NGO or individual needs to file a PIL in the Supreme Court so that this whole issue can be looked at impartially."

(Rashme Sehgal is an independent writer and journalist based in New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2004