UP's anti-people law on population

The draft bill by the Uttar Pradesh government to enforce what is commonly referred to as the two-child norm has caused much political noise.  In sum, ‘The Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021’ proposes that married couples who bear more than two children will forfeit the right to a government job, to contest local polls and a host of other benefits.  The timing is of course wrong, but there is much more that is obnoxious here with the trap of false debates on population numbers being the root of all the nation’s troubles.

Underdeveloped economies, poorer families, uneducated couples have a high fertility rate. As they move up the socio-economic ladder, the number of children per couple declines and this taken in the aggregate eventually leads to population numbers stabilising, even declining.

The Chief Minister of India’s largest State Yogi Adityanath was plain wrong when he said on July 11 (Sunday) that rising population is the root of inequality and other ills facing society. But he is not the only one to blame. Across the political spectrum, the idea appears to have taken root that our population numbers are problematic. Witness Sharad Pawar and some others coming out in support of this position, which turns all understanding of demographics on its head. Several other States already have put in place some version of the two child norm over several years, but it's impacts have not been formally studied.

The movement on the population graph follows the same patterns everywhere. Underdeveloped economies, poorer families, uneducated couples have a high fertility rate. As they move up the socio-economic ladder, the number of children per couple declines and this taken in the aggregate eventually leads to population numbers stabilising, even declining. This is so of all observed people anywhere in the world. Muslims are no different from Hindus or from any other religion. Couples forced by their circumstances take decisions that are wise and useful and meaningful from their point of view, their unique lenses and their expectations of the place they will land in the foreseeable future.  This is no different from how inflation expectations of the rich and the poor are known to vary – in one study, “while the high-income group displayed a marked increase in concern about the risk of deflation, the low-income group generally maintained its concern about ongoing inflation.” Life hits the rich and the poor in different ways and so their behaviours and responses are natural different.

We will sink further into the idea of force, power, law to fix an issue that has everything to do with people, poverty and development.

The poor tend to have more children because of several reasons that are well-researched, widely understood and universally accepted among all demographers. The poor have less access to health services and so child mortality tends to be higher; a higher number of children then becomes an insurance against the death of the child and the financial support that an extra pair of hands can provide early on in life. The poor also have less education, are less aware of the available contraception method-mix and often cannot access services in a safe, timely and cost-effective manner. 

And when the girl child is not educated, when the age at marriage is low, when the health of the child is weak, it leads to poor health of the mother and low birth weight of the child in pregnancies that are early in life, reinforcing a cycle that leads to more children and higher mortality. In other words, a high population growth is nothing but a mirror to the state of development of the nation or the State under question.

In these terms, Uttar Pradesh is a less developed State. It featured among the earlier ‘Bimaru’ States, so called because of the poor demographic indicators these States showed, relative to rest of India. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, UP made for the acronym ‘Bimaru’, which indicated that they were demographically “sick”; the areas also covered Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Uttarakhand, which were not separate States when the term was first coined in 1980. Research dating to 2015 showed that the ‘Bimaru’ States had not converged on most of the indictors studied – they continued to be backward compared to the national average.

The proposed law limits ration card entitlements but fails to ask who in the family will suffer if food runs short – it will inevitably be the mother and the children, further ingraining poverty into the next generation rather than help the State move up the development ladder. It speaks of polygamy and polyandry and gives multiple sets of explanations on how the number of children will be calculated – still restricted to two, but it offers no view on divorcees, widows or widowers.

Yet, there has been progress and it has come without the draconian law that is now being proposed, denying rights to a couple on the basis of the number of children they have. Consider the simple statistic: UP’s Total Fertility Rate, or TFR (the average number of children a woman would have in her child bearing years, based on current birth trends) has steadily declined – 4.2 in 2006, 3.5 in 2010, 3.1 in 2015 and 2016, 3.0 in 2017 (SRS data). 

To compare, Kerala’s TFR has moved in the same years down from 1.8 to 1.7, staying well below replacement levels of 2.1. How has this been achieved by Kerala? The answer is well-known – active policy measures that support health and education. In UP, the decline is slow as support systems and health infrastructure improve rather slowly over time. NFHS-4 (2015-16) reports that 46.2% of Under-5 children in UP are stunted, the second worst performing State – only Bihar is worse. Improving this requires investments in the health sector, not laws that deny rights, check papers or set up punishments for couples.

We will spend money on administering rewards and punishments, on affidavits and claims, on increments and incentives, and that much less on health care centers and services

The proposed law limits ration card entitlements but fails to ask who in the family will suffer if food runs short – it will inevitably be the mother and the children, further ingraining poverty into the next generation rather than help the State move up the development ladder. It speaks of polygamy and polyandry and gives multiple sets of explanations on how the number of children will be calculated – still restricted to two, but it offers no view on divorcees, widows or widowers. It does not speak of children who may be born out of wedlock. It says adopting more than two children would be in contravention of the proposed law, if the couple already has two children, opening new worries and questions on how adoption should be viewed. It appears not to consider the risk of a rise in unsafe abortions, sex selection or children being given up for adoption.

The bill is clearly hastily drafted. It will meet with legal challenges if passed in this form. But it does deep damage already. While we debate the two-child norm, the real issues that have caused UP to become ‘Bimaru’ while vast tracts of India are close to replacement fertility levels without these laws, will be forgotten. We will sink further into the idea of force, power, law to fix an issue that has everything to do with people, poverty and development. We will spend money on administering rewards and punishments, on affidavits and claims, on increments and incentives, and that much less on health care centers and services that are the only guarantee of giving us a nation where people are educated, healthy and on the way to becoming productive citizens so that the nation can truly reap the demographic dividend.

(The writer is a senior journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)