Why India's Population Control Bill is ill-timed and will breed more inequality

Photo: Charu Chaturvedi/Unsplash

Keeping in mind the adverse impact of India’s rising population and its pressure on limited natural resources, the Population Control Bill, 2020, is to be tabled in the Upper House of Parliament soon.

This bill applies to all married couples qualifying a minimum age of 21 for the husband and 18 for the wife. Renewing the focus on the two-child policy, the bill proposes incentives for those with single child and disincentives for those having more than two children. Tabling such a bill seems ill-informed at a time when half of the Indian population is nearing replacement levels of fertility and there is rapid convergence of fertility levels between the rich and the poor, educated and the less educated as well as various other identities and attributes.

Further, the fertility differences, if any, at the current juncture is perhaps serving as a balancer of sorts across regions in terms of the working-age population given the divide in demographic progress between states. Population control freaks are swayed by the growing size of the population without reading its composition and contrasting the same against various world regions to imagining the human resource advantage India can have by preparing this human resource to cater to the demand for the global workforce.

Smith Mehta/Unsplash
Smith Mehta/Unsplash

Incentivising inequality

Besides raising this false alarm of population control, the suggested means to realize the same sounds more dated given the understanding of the role of development in fertility reduction worldwide.

The proposed measures of incentivization/dis-incentivization not only contest the fundamental principles of individual choice and preference but also has implications towards widening the existing inequities. The incentives as designed reads like offering privilege to the already privileged. Most couples having a single child are by all means the privileged ones in many ways because such a choice is largely guided by their status and position on one hand and access to means and measures on the other.

So when we incentivize single child couples, who are mostly the well-informed ones, we are in many ways adding a cherry on the top of a cake. The bill's content is focused on incentivizing those with low fertility and disincentivizing those exceeding the small family norm.

Karthik Chandran/Unsplash
Karthik Chandran/Unsplash

Contraceptive conundrum

Provisioning contraceptives at reasonable rates is based on a presumption that contraceptive use is conditioned by affordability. In fact, contraceptive choices are conditioned by the attitude towards fertility regulation on one hand and male participation in the process on the other. Provisioning of contraceptives does not naturally translate into practice and women in India have lesser say than others unless women enjoy the status and autonomy to decide on when and how many children they wish to have.

Incentivizing opportunities in higher education and government jobs for children of those who adopt sterilization with single child send erroneous signals in terms of promoting female sterilization which adds to the already disproportionate contraceptive burden on women.

Sterilization's burden and regret

Further, on the issue of sterilization as a means of fertility regulation when most of it is female sterilization, the burden again is on women.

Such promotion of sterilization among young women overlooks the kind of 'sterilization regret' that will emerge. While such regret might seem very low in magnitude, the reason behind such regret is predominantly the desire to have had an additional child. With ideal fertility regulation in place that facilitates a balance between women’s reproductive and productive role always generates a circumstance of regret as women/couples have a feeling of having the capacity to nurture better quality children within their means.

Further, luring the poor with financial incentives into adopting sterilization with one child sounds cruel given the possible adversities of access to health care and lack of guaranteeing the survival of the only child.

Ravi Sharma/Unsplash
Ravi Sharma/Unsplash

Control and denial of benefits

Besides family-based incentives, a population stabilization fund has been proposed to award states performing well on this front. Such reward for states ahead in population control was a bone of contention in recent times on account of the financial devolution to states wherein the front runners in population control had lost out because the population component was represented with 2011 population, unlike earlier times when the population component was based on 1971 population.

Although the Finance Commission did a balancing act of compromise considering a mid-way where not only population growth but also its composition was accounted for to qualify the principle of fairness and equity in such devolution.

Against law, against affirmative action

As for disincentives, this bill considers two domains, namely legislative participation and benefits from state provisioning. Restricting legislative participation at all levels from Parliament to panchayat will perhaps not stand the test of the rule of law of the land as it contests the franchise of every citizen in a democracy.

Further, the state provisioning like subsidies being conditioned by conformity with small family norms may not serve as a disincentive rather than making the beneficiaries further worse off. This goes against the fundamentals of affirmative action as the needy are not evaluated based on their reproductive choice but the adversities in tangible and intangible endowments. Using this criterion for promotion in jobs brings a conflict between the professional sphere and personal sphere. Getting an undertaking from service holders to compromise on personal choices sounds colonial and echoes a paternalistic tone.

Koushik Das/Unsplash
Koushik Das/Unsplash

It's about development, not religion

One wonders at the timing for such a bill to appear not only in terms of the means and measures of its implementation but also the underlying intent behind it. There is a flawed understanding as regard a particular identity group contributing to high fertility that perpetuates poverty and deprivation despite any set of measures to rehabilitate them.

The perpetuation of poverty and deprivation is not due to the number of children they have but the kind of deprivation in the opportunity to build better capabilities. Such deprivation particularly among women and girl children should be the focus to realize the necessary changes in reproduction as well.

Blaming greater number of children for the state of deprivation is perhaps naïve given the failure in retaining girl children in education for a minimum of eighteen years and encourage vocational engagement in them to generate autonomy and self-worth that would automatically result in the choice of restricted reproduction.

Poor timing

Finally, anyone will be curious as to whether in today’s date and time a population control bill is called for, that too guided by incentives and disincentives. The course of population transition that is underway is irreversible with signs of decelerating growth rates. However, the impatient crowd to notice population stabilization at the earliest should acknowledge the fact that the current growth is a mere consequence of momentum ( the large size past cohorts entering the reproductive ages).

Hence rather than worry about population growth, the focus needs to be on its composition to make it ready for the emerging needs of the global workforce. India’s population stabilization is on the horizon without a hint of doubt but failing to make the most of this human resource by equipping them with skills and capabilities suited for the evolving labor market will be a lost opportunity.

Finally, every additional count threatens per-capita but everything is not needed by everyone in equal terms.

(Udaya S Mishra is a professor at the Center for Development Studies, Trivandrum, and Ashwin Mishra is Asst. Professor at Jindal Global Law University, Sonipat, Haryana)

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