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Does India need population control? UP draft policy begs the question

Experts argue that there is no evidence of a "population explosion” in India
Last Updated : 14 July 2021, 12:16 IST
Last Updated : 14 July 2021, 12:16 IST
Last Updated : 14 July 2021, 12:16 IST
Last Updated : 14 July 2021, 12:16 IST

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Echoes for state-wide population policies are growing louder even as government estimates suggest that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) and annual population growth rate, are declining.

Amid the push for measures for population control by some BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh and Assam, Opposition parties are labelling it a "divisive measure" against a certain national demographic.

As this clamour for such a policy grows, the swiftness with which these state governments have tried to create draft measures begs the question: Should this be the focus amid a pandemic? And, more importantly, is there really a population explosion? Because the data seems to be telling a different story.

Dippping TFR

Experts argue that there is no evidence of a "population explosion” in India as India's desired value for TFR -- which represents the average number of children a woman would need to have to reproduce herself by bearing a daughter who survives to childbearing age -- has dipped below 2.1 in 19 states.

"The concern and alarm around 'population explosion' are not substantiated by national or global data and there is no evidence that there is a population explosion in either India or Uttar Pradesh," Executive director of Population Foundation of India, Poonam Muttreja, told to Outlook magazine.

Currency only in BJP-ruled states?

Ahead of the Monsoon Session of the Parliament, three BJP-ruled states -- Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Karnataka -- are mulling prospects of a two-child policy, which runs parallel to the National Population Policy.

While most BJP leaders refrained from directly commenting on the alleged communal angle of the policy, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the proposal is partly to control the population growth of the northeastern state's Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi Muslims.

However, in Assam, National Family Health Survey suggests, the use of any modern contraceptive methods is the highest amongst currently married Muslim women, at 49 percent, compared to 45.7 percent for Christian women and 42.8 percent of Hindu women.

Samajwadi Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Barq slammed the BJP government over its draft population control bill (In UP) and asked where will India get manpower in case of a war if people are not allowed to procreate.

Calling it BJP's "political agenda" ahead of the assembly polls, UP Congress spokesperson Ashok Singh in a Hindi tweet said, "The RSS and BJP leaders talk about increasing the population. Population control is a subject of the Centre. Yogi Adityanath (CM) is bringing the bill keeping in mind the UP Assembly elections."

In June, Sambhal MLA Iqbal Mehmood had said that any law on population control would be a "conspiracy" against Muslims.

'Religion has little to do with fertility levels'

Even though Yogi Adityanath and Himanta Biswa Sarma have not targeted Muslims directly in their draft policies or announcements, the message against Muslims is clear. On several occassions, BJP leaders have explicitly or implicitly implied that it was one particular community that is driving the population surge.

As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay also writes, "the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates that comprise the Sangh Parivar have long campaigned on the existence of a Muslim "conspiracy" to render the Hindus into a religious minority in 'their country'. Although scientific data suggests that male opposition to contraceptive practises, vasectomy or use of condoms is uniform across communities; it is suggested that Muslims are principally opposed to birth control."

Muslim dominated countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, have outperformed India in terms of falling birth rates. Even within India, fertility rates among Muslims in Kerala is lower than the fertility rates among Hindus in Bihar, the Population Foundation of India said a statement.

"Religion has little to do with fertility levels," it said.

After China's failed population policy, the emphasis is that India must take note of this.

At present, eight states -- Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand -- have active two-child norm policies.

'Coercive population policy counterproductive'

On paper, the draft population policy with its measures for safefuarding reproductive health, ending infant and maternal mortality and illnesses and focusing on nutritional status seem important initiatives. But the lack of supporting data and the timing make the intent of policy claims questionable.

According to the draft, the UP government will also provide incentives to couples who have one child while denying government benefits to those having more than two children in its new population policy.

However, a study by a former senior IAS officer, Nirmala Buch, found that men divorced their wives to run for local body elections and families gave up children for adoption to avoid disqualification in states that had adopted a two-child policy. The states also saw a rise in sex-selective and unsafe abortions.

Population policies, experts suggest, must focus on "securing the reproductive health of women and girls, ensuring access and availability of modern contraceptives" instead of solely focusing on numbers.

Why introduce a policy now?

The Uttar Pradesh Population Policy 2021-2030 aims at bringing down the gross fertility rate among women to 2.1 by 2026 and to 1.9 by 2030. However, according to several reports, the fertility rate in Uttar Pradesh has nearly halved from 4.82 in 1993 to 2.7 in 2016 and is expected to touch 2.1 by 2025.

The introduction of the bill ahead of the state Assembly polls early next year assumes significance as Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is already facing the heat of 'mishandling' the second wave of the pandemic in India's most populous state, with opposition MLAs labelling the bill as a "conspiracy" against Muslims.

Doubts have emerged over Uttar Pradesh's real Covid-19 situation, which experts believe is grossly underreported, especially after reports of corpses of suspected Covid patients were found in and near the Ganga. The question remains: Should the state be focusing on population control measures unsupported by data amid a pandemic that has killed at least 22,704 people (according to the official tally) in the state?

(With agency inputs)

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Published 14 July 2021, 11:23 IST

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