Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath is barking up the wrong tree. In the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill, 2021, he has crafted a shoddy draft with even shoddier motivation and poor strategy. So has Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam. Such measures will only drain the exchequer to pay for what is automatically happening without incentive while they set other positive trends back.
Prior to 1975, India led the world in male-sterilisation numbers. Sanjay Gandhi’s Emergency-era nasbandi put paid to this. Notwithstanding the two-year forced dramatic spurt, numbers that had earlier averaged several millions a year came down to virtually nil. Despite strenuous efforts at revival thereafter, vasectomies have never since crossed a few thousands annually. A safe, satisfactory male contraceptive method requiring a minor procedure lost public trust because of political mal-interference.
On another front, I saw, as I travelled to China in 1981, their tremendous demographic transformation through ‘Later Marriage, Longer Spacing and Fewer Births’. The excellent rural health infrastructure with barefoot doctors, Chinese medicine-stocked pharmacies and the societal reinforcement to women’s status testified to wholesome strategies that eventually transformed Chinese feudal traditions. But then tragically, the Chinese, wanting to move faster, instituted the ‘One Child’ policy with draconian measures. On a later visit I observed: “What China accomplished in the 1970s provides a vision of what is possible in India in the 1980s. The extremism of China’s 1980s should reinforce our own determination not to swerve from a democratic and human path.” (The Indian Express, I983). The Chinese people have paid a heavy personal price for this and today the country rues the cost of such demographic arm-twisting.
The short point of these reminiscences is to highlight what is wrong with UP and Assam’s thinking. The sad part is that these ‘population-control initiatives’ are being brought when fertility decline has already occurred in India. The national Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is 2.2 — just a whisker short of the TFR of 2.1 with which India reaches replacement level fertility, that is, a woman replaces herself in her reproductive life-span. Uttar Pradesh’s TFR, which was 2.7 at last count, is steadily diminishing.
But even this higher TFR has counterbalanced states that have dipped below 2.1 and so has enabled the more progressive parts of India to avoid the experience of European countries, Japan and China’s future fears because of the short-falling of dynamic working-age youth to power a vigorous economy. Despite many financial incentives to grow the European countries, Japan and even Malaysia (where Mahathir Mohamad shrewdly anticipated the problem) are unable to entice family size change by political will.
To force change in the most intimate area of human relationship is to play with fire. The word ‘control’ in the draft bill’s title is a direct contradiction in terms of relief; more importantly, it is the guiding intent of the policy. This approach requires jettisoning in democratic 21st century India.
CM Adityanath’s attention must be drawn to the fact that the steady fertility reduction already occurring in India, including in Uttar Pradesh, can be disrupted by fiat only to the nation’s peril — as it happened earlier in the 1970s. Secondly, and most pertinent to UP, India’s population is a large-based pyramid, so there is inbuilt population momentum that will not halt immediately regardless of the state militating a two-child policy now. Not only is pushing population control with incentives/disincentives an infructuous old hat, but it also stands to endanger current propitious trends at this stage, when particular communities are being targeted. UP’s laggard position with higher poverty, lower literacy, lower work opportunities and greater physical insecurity for women than the national scenario requires determined attention rather than this ‘population control bill’.
The population bill proposes incentives that will substantively drain the exchequer to provide benefits to government servants – and others – who, in any case, are following the small family norm. This money is required to be spent on UP’s miserable primary healthcare infrastructure and redressing the near-absence of male multipurpose workers who are the state’s cadre of frontline health workers for communicable disease-prevention, vaccinations and motivation of the male population for contraception-adoption.
Go back to the drafting board
Finally, the draft bill completely overlooks the only viable strategy to slow population momentum, demonstrated to dramatic, quick effect by China and other East Asian countries – increase in the age of marriage and of first birth. Increasing the marriage age for women to 21 or beyond, during which she gets a minimum of ten years of education, together with work opportunities (and increasing the marriage age for men to 25) could work a real miracle for UP. Later marriage and later births bring longer inter-generational gaps that do more for population stabilisation both in the immediate and long run.
The mean age of effective marriage (emphasis added to show how a statistical sleight has made figures more impressive and non-comparable with the past) was above 20 in UP in the last census. One, this is below the national average. Two, the mean indicates more than half the women, or 52.3 per cent, are married in their teens. And three, it gives UP India’s largest pool of under-18 married girls – 36 million (UNICEF). Early marriage also means early births. In UP, women’s age at marriage has been increasing this past decade but must accelerate to more than double that pace if it is to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to which India is committed.
Moreover, Muslim acceptance of family planning measures is now at a faster pace, with a sharper fertility decline than in the Hindu community. To upset this ongoing positive phenomenon is short-sighted if not disastrous.
CM Adityanath needs to go back to the drafting board and rethink this electorally magnetised strategy. Rework the whole exercise with sensitivity to societal and social concerns – and improvements in health infrastructure. That will bring stabilisation, both of population and social well-being. Otherwise, he is destined to go down in history as another Sanjay Gandhi.
The author is a former member of the National Population Commission. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)