Need for development, not birth control


The sudden announcement made by Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa supporting a scheme of disincentives for couples having more than two children in the state came as a rude surprise. At the same time, given the nature and history of intuitive mode of decision making as against evidence based decision making prevalent in governments, it is not completely unexpected.

It is also the result of the impressionistic view of family planning programme the chief minister had during his recent visit to China. Ironically, the main opposition also welcomed such a view perhaps without understanding its implication. Intuitive decision making, clearly, is not limited to any particular political party in the state.

It is, therefore, important to understand the demographic situation in Karnataka before initiating a debate on family planning. More importantly, before introducing any punishment, one has to understand not only the final culprit but the perpetuators of the crime as well.

Karnataka achieved the norm of two children per women on an average around three to four years back. This average signifies that the state is on a replacement level fertility implying that the major part of the population growth in the state in future will largely be due to the population momentum factor. Population momentum occurs due to the past high birthrate when the couples born in the past will be in the reproductive ages in the coming years resulting in higher number of marriages and subsequent child birth which cannot be avoided by policies implemented henceforth.

Satisfactory

Karnataka along with other southern states in India shows an encouraging picture in fertility indicators. The latest round of National Family Health Survey (2005-06) shows a family planning acceptance rate of 62 per cent for married woman in the age group 15-49. Average number of children per women in most districts of southern and western Karnataka has been far below two children per woman. It implies that this region will experience a negative population growth in the future once the population momentum effect goes by. The northern Karnataka currently has around 2.5 to 3 children per women on an average, but the rate is coming down.

The number of children per women is directly linked to levels of human development. The health of children, women’s empowerment, gender equity, etc are critical to achieve desired goals of family planning. Studies from all over the world have amply demonstrated the powerful effect of women’s education on the number of children she bears.

The educational level in north Karnataka is abysmally low as compared to the southern and western regions. Socially and economically backward sections of the society, minorities are also in the margins of development resulting in higher number of children. Ignoring these hard facts and discussing the punishment of those having more children is clearly a case of  punishing the poor for what is hardly their fault.

Ironically, while it is time for the government to concentrate more on the effects of fast declining fertility, its effect on growing adult population and ageing issues, it is rather paradoxical that the government takes a back seat and makes announcements that may have been relevant about two decades ago.

India is also a signatory to the programme of action of the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994 which clearly emphasises the importance of couples’ choice, rather than state intervention, in the number of children. Further, it also lays stress on integrating population action into the overall development. The ICPD commitment has been a direct recognition that the incentives and disincentives in family planning in most countries of the world have not provided any significant dividend for achieving the desired goal of fertility reduction.

The National Population Policy-2000 of the Union government also emphasises on providing reproductive health and rights to the population as the basic strategy to achieve the desired goals of family planning. The policy document strongly rejects disincentives to couples having more children.

The above discussion allows us to make a distinction between the final culprit and the perpetuators of the crime. If higher birth rates are a direct outcome of illiteracy, poverty, underdevelopment and backwardness among some sections or regions, the state is directly responsible. To ignore this responsibility, and punish those who have more than two children is not only a symptomatic treatment, it also is a direct violation of the concept of social justice.

Karnataka has already achieved the desired goal of small family norm. It is time that the state should think ahead on how the fertility transition benefit can be reaped adequately than going back in introducing draconian policies which are not going to achieve any objectives based on the available experience.

(The writer is a professor at population research centre, Institute for Social and Economic Change)

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