Uttar Pradesh CM has boldly stated the need for population stabilisation but needs to adopt strategies that work.
While the subject of population control is widely discussed by the Indian public, it is not a subject that has received much political attention. The prime minister had referred to it in his Independence Day address in 2017.
Four years later, we suddenly have population becoming a very important subject with two states in the country–Uttar Pradesh and Assam–bringing it on the front burner.
On the World Population Day, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath not only unveiled a population policy for the state, but he also had the draft on the website seeking objections. There seems to be a very short time given to the public to react, which means that there is every expectation of it being introduced in the assembly.
UTTAR PRADESH SHOULD HAVE CONTROLLED POPULATION 3 DECADES AGO
It is important to look at the contents and what are the aims and objectives sought to be served, and are they going to have the desired effect?
First and foremost, I am not quarrelling with the idea of population and the need for population stabilisation. If anyone has to do something, it is Uttar Pradesh. I will come to how huge that problem is and therefore, paying attention to it should have started 30, 20, or 10 years ago in right earnest. It did not.
As the first executive director of the National Population Stabilisation Fund or the Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh, which is now folded up, I made it a mission to try and meet the two chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in 2008.
Though I expected to meet the Chief Minister Ms Mayawati, I met her top state bureaucrat. I made an impassioned plea about what was happening, the very high fertility, and what was needed to be done by Uttar Pradesh, I was generally heard with politeness and with assurances that something would be done but I did not get the feeling that anything important would be done.
Therefore, when the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has put it on the front burner, it is something that should be applauded.
WHAT DOES THE UP POPULATION POLICY AIM TO ACHIEVE?
What the policy tries to bring out is that they are going to try and reduce the fertility rate – where the Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and some of the Hindi belt states – are still to achieve the 2.1 stabilisation and the replacement levels of fertility, which most of India has already attained.
Second, they want to lower maternity and infant mortality rates, they want to reduce the undernourishment and malnourishment problems, and they want to reduce under 5 years of age mortality.
India was the first signatory to the population policy of 1951 but after the Emergency, the whole subject of population went underground.
To that extent, the fact that it has been brought on the front burner is excellent.
YOGI ADITYANATH'S FOCUS ON GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES AND COERCION
What I find odd is that there is a huge focus on what will happen to government servants who have two or, even better, only one child. They will get all kinds of perquisites.
Of course, maternity leave, paternity leave, all those things which are very progressive have also been thought through but the question is-even if Uttar Pradesh has a very large number of government servants, it is nothing compared to the size of the state. The population of Uttar Pradesh is about 212 million which is the size of a country like Brazil.
Uttar Pradesh itself, along with Bihar, is about 23 percent of the whole country so to talk about government servants alone and give them so much primacy—they are a captive group under your control and you can pretty much do whatever you want—is odd. If you are going to visit them with any kind of punishment, that will also lead to all types of constitutional issues.
As far as the general public is concerned, the law as well as the policy speaks about them getting certain benefits. Those below the poverty line would get Rs 80,000 if they stick to the norm that has been specified-Rs 80,000 if it is a boy and Rs 1 lakh if it is a girl.
The number sounds generous but is at the cost of ensuring that those couples go in for sterilisation because it is only then that they can say that they have complied. Whether that kind of compliance can be upheld legally or constitutionally is yet to be seen.
THE NEED TO ANALYSE POPULATION AT A GRANULAR LEVEL
Without going into the legality of the matter, the action to prevent unwanted pregnancies, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is urgently required.
In many districts, neither Hindus nor Muslims practice any modern family planning methods at all. The whole subject of population, fertility, and contraception must be addressed.
But at a granular level, it should really rivet on “where is the problem?”
The problem does not lie in the urban areas, it does lie in the towns or the cities. It lies in rural districts and there is a substantial variation across the districts of Uttar Pradesh according to NFHS 4 data and this data is not going to change drastically from the NHFS 5 data which is yet to come out.
Even if you go by their findings, what came out was that women in Uttar Pradesh are having children ranging between 1.6 to 4.4 children per woman. The Terai belt, which is where the hills meet the plains towards northern UP and the adjacent districts have high fertility while the Bundelkhand region has low fertility.
The failure rates of traditional methods of contraception have reported being very high and women always remain anxious and at-risk. They have to go into abortions which is unfair to them and also risky because not all of them go in for medical termination early enough, with the result that other methods are used, which can be extremely harmful.
WILL THE UP LAW HELP CURB THE STATE'S POPULATION?
We have 12 states in the country starting with Rajasthan, which in 1992 promulgated laws that stated that you can only have two children or face punishment. However, it has had very little effect on the reproductive practices of most people in the state.
Apart from Rajasthan, states like Orissa, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, Assam all have these laws.
If these laws were so efficient, why would we have the kind of high fertility that we see in the Hindi belt states?
Just focusing on the political element and the element of government servants is not going to make any difference at all, apart from the fact that the legality of all this will be questioned.
UP BILL GOES AGAINST THE CENTRE'S 2020 SC AFFIDAVIT
What I find very surprising is that this draft bill has been put forward despite what the Centre had told the Supreme Court in an affidavit as recently as 2020.
The Centre told the apex court:
“Coercing people to have fewer children would be counterproductive, leading to demographic distortion.”
The Centre in its affidavit also expressed its disinclination towards forced family planning or population control laws.
Further, the Centre stated that India is a signatory to the Program of Action of International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) 1994, where it unequivocally supported that there should be no coercion in family planning.
The affidavit that such a law could have the unintended impact of sex-selection, unsafe abortions, and a further skew in India’s sex ratio.
When you talk about population stabilisation, the sex ratio is really important.
POLICY MEASURES WHICH HAVE BEEN EFFECTIVE
When I was in the Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh, certain pilots schemes worked. These were tried in Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh, Barmer, and Dholpur in Rajasthan, Nabrangpur in Odisha.
With the approval of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, we incentivised responsible parenthood in these districts with high fertility rates.
In the period from 2006-09, we told families that if a girl is married at 19 and not 18, which is the legal age, and she gives birth to the first baby at 21 and the second baby is born three years apart, you will rewarded for reaching every one of these milestones. If it's a boy, you will be paid a post office savings certificate of Rs 5,000, and if it's a girl, Rs 7,000 and cashable in six years.
The local media also covered the event which became a means of building awareness about the programme. People were told that they got the money for being responsible, for allowing the girl to stay free of anaemia and malnourishment so that she could be in good health when she is married and became a mother.
UP could have carried this forward, made it more attractive, and given a post office saving certificate to anyone in the districts where the fertility is high. Out of 75 districts, UP needs to focus only on 35.
I do feel that registration of marriages, deaths, and births has to be looked at with fresh eyes. During my tenure at the Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh, we found that local administrative heads or sarpanch were merrily signing off wrong birth certificates because people wanted to marry their daughters young.
Most importantly, we had also set up a call centre—not a helpline—in an industrial estate to give information on reproductive and child health in both Hindi and English, and we had trained people who used to answer questions from very remote districts like Purnia in Bihar or Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh. People were starved of basic information like- how to get contraceptives, where to get them, side effects, and a lot more.
We had recommended that this responsibility should be taken away from the local administrative level and be given to the Sub Divisional Officer, who is likely an IAS officer. However, this recommendation was not taken forward.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY FOR UTTAR PRADESH
The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has been bold enough to say a lot of good things about the need for population stabilisation but he really needs to adopt strategies that will work. I don’t think much will be gained from going after government servants.
The whole question of population stabilisation is extremely important and even the economy depends on how you handle it.
With proper skilling, Uttar Pradesh could be a goldmine but not if you are going to use coercion because it flies in the face of the policies that India has adopted.
(Shailaja Chandra is the former Secretary in the Ministry of Health and first Executive Director of Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh—National Population Stabilisation Fund. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
Published: 13 Jul 2021,09:09 PM IST