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In whose interest?

Population control requires investments in health, education and employment and not counter-productive punitive measures like the recent attempt to bar people with more than two children from contesting panchayat elections, writes MOHAN RAO.

IN the Sunday Magazine section of The Hindu recently (July 27, 2003), journalist P. Sainath told the story of a Dalit sarpanch, father of three children, in Kondapur village in Andhra Pradesh. The A.P. State population policy mandates the disqualification of those with more than two children from contesting panchayati raj elections. He was fighting the case for his disqualification in the A.P. High Court, but more poignantly, all his children were being kept away from school, because the A.P. State Population Policy also recommends — among the mind-boggling number of disincentives — that government facilities for education be withheld for the third child onwards. Echoing Dickens, Mr. Sainath wondered if the law is an ass.

Ironically just a few days later, on July 31, newspapers announced that a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court upheld a Haryana Government law prohibiting a person from contesting or holding the post of sarpanch or panch if he or she had more than two children. The bench observed that "disqualification on the right to contest an election for having more than two children does not contravene any fundamental right, nor does it cross the limits of reasonability. Rather, it is a disqualification conceptually devised in the national interest".

When the "population bomb" predicted by neo-Malthusian doomsday Cold Warrior demographers failed to materialise, when it was understood that one reason for the failure of family planning programmes globally was the constraints on women's agency, the international population control movement — with the western feminist movement providing the leadership — initiated what has been described as a "paradigm shift". One central aspect of the shift is that family planning services are to be broadened in order to attend to women's — and indeed men's — reproductive needs and rights and not as a function of control of a non-existent "population explosion". Indeed a 1986 review sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences issued a cautiously worded statement, to the dismay of the community of doomsday demographers, noting that population growth has both positive and negative impacts and that the actual net impact cannot be determined based on existing evidence.

Reflecting both this understanding, and commitments made at the ICPD in 1994 in Cairo, in February 2000, the Government of India adopted the National Population Policy 2000 (NPP). This policy is certainly not without problems. It has population stabilisation rather than the health and well being of the people as a goal, it is not integrated with health or indeed with the myriad other sectors that contour population dynamics. Yet one undoubtedly positive feature of the NPP is that it resolutely affirms the "commitment of the Government towards voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens while availing of reproductive health care services, and continuation of the target-free approach in administering family planning services". Committing itself to respect for human rights and the freedom and dignity of women, these were translated into a non-target oriented family welfare programme, which rightly abjured incentives and disincentives.

Several State governments on the other hand, some at the behest of an American consultancy firm Futures Group, whose function it has been to recreate fears of the population explosion, announced population policies, which, in very significant ways, violate the letter and the spirit of the NPP.

Andhra Pradesh, that Mr. Sainath's article referred to, lists an astonishing series of incentives and disincentives. At the community level, performance in RCH and rates of couple protection will determine the construction of school buildings, public works and funding for rural development programmes. Performance in RCH is also to be made the criterion for full coverage under programmes like TRYSEM, DWCRA, Weaker Section Housing Scheme, and Low Cost Sanitation Scheme. Allotment of surplus agricultural land, housing sites, as well as benefits under IRDP, SC Action Plan, and BC Action Plan are to be given in preference to acceptors of terminal methods of contraception. Educational concessions, subsidies and promotions as well as government jobs are to be restricted to those who accept the small family norm. In what can only be described as a macabre metaphor of the lottery that is the life of the poor in the country, an award of Rs. 10,000 each is to be given to three couples to be selected from every district on the basis of a lucky dip. The eligible include three couples per district with two girl children adopting permanent methods of family planning, three couples per district with one child adopting permanent methods of family planning and three couples per district with two or less children adopting vasectomy.

The population policies of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh also carry many of these features. All of them debar women with more than two children from contesting elections to the Panchayati Raj Institutions. The Uttar Pradesh population policy also disqualifies persons married before the legal age of marriage from government jobs, as if children are responsible for child marriages. Further, 10 per cent of financial assistance of panchayats is to be based on family planning performance. Indeed, fearfully recalling the Emergency — which cast a bludgeon blow to the credibility of the programme — the assessment of the performance of medical officers and other health workers is linked to performance in the RCH programme.

A number of health groups and women's groups in the country have repeatedly protested these draconian features of State population policies, indeed even compelling States like Maharashtra and Gujarat to reconsider theirs. Their objection is based on compelling grassroots experience that pointed out that these disincentives and incentives are anti-women, anti-adivasi, anti-Dalit, anti-child and anti-poor in general. They also are profoundly violative of human and democratic rights.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for 1998-99 shows that the Total Fertility Rate (TER) is 3.15 for Scheduled Castes, 3.06 for Scheduled Tribes, 2.66 among Other Backward Castes and 3.47 among illiterate women as a whole.

It is, in contrast, 1.99 among better off women and thus likely to be educated beyond standard 10. Imposition of the two-child norm, and the disincentives proposed, would mean that significant sections among these already deprived populations would bear the brunt of the State's withdrawal of ameliorative measures, as pitiably inadequate as they are. With the recent Supreme Court judgement, significant sections of these populations will be debarred from their right to contest elections.

In the States where these laws have been imposed, as in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, scores of cases have been documented where women have been deserted, or forced to undergo sex selective abortions. Children have also been abandoned or given up for adoption. In general, such a norm provides an impetus for an increase in sex-selective abortions, worsening an already terrible child sex ratio in the country.

As the NPP acknowledges, there is an imperative need for health and safe contraceptive services. To propose punitive measures in this context is clearly absurd. Reflecting deprivation, the dalits, adivasis and OBCs bear a significantly higher proportion of the mortality load in the country.

The NFHS for 1998-99, notes that the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) among the SCs, STs and OBCs is 83, 84 and 76 respectively, compared to 62 for Others. Similarly the Under Five Mortality Rate is 119 among the S.Cs, 126 among the S.Ts 103 among the OBCs compared to 82 among the Others. Clearly, to impose two-child norms under such circumstances is to widen inequalities among our people.

A number of health groups and women's groups approached the NHRC last year with a memorandum that the two-child norm was discriminatory, anti-democratic and violative of commitments made by the Government in several international covenants. The NHRC, in response, issued orders to the concerned State governments, and, at a National Colloquium on January 9 and 10, 2003 attended by representatives of these State Governments, issued a declaration. This declaration, while appreciating the perspective of the NPP, "notes with concern that population policies framed by some State Governments reflect in certain respects a coercive approach through use of incentives and disincentives, which in some cases are violative of human rights. This is not consistent with the spirit of the National Population Policy. The violation of human rights affects in particular the marginalised and vulnerable sections of society, including women."

The declaration also noted: "Further that the propagation of a two-child norm and coercion or manipulation of individual fertility decision through the use of incentives and disincentives violate the principle of voluntary informed choice and the human rights of the people, particularly the rights of the child."

It needs to be recalled that there is a significant demographic transition occurring in the country; to hasten this requires investments in health, education, food and employment and not counter-productive punitive measures.

It also needs to be recalled that, given the age structure of the population, there is an inbuilt momentum which coercive measures can do nothing about.

Above all, the function of justice is to enhance freedoms and opportunities and not curtail them in the interest of ill-defined national objectives.

The writer teaches at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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