Voices seeking a stringent population control policy through legislation — on the lines of the proposed laws in Uttar Pradesh and Assam — seem to be growing among other BJP-ruled states, including Karnataka. Senior Minister K.S. Eshwarappa and BJP national general secretary C.T. Ravi have batted for a law on the lines of the one in Uttar Pradesh.
However, the proposal has met with opposition from population science experts, activists and political opposition alike, who argue that ‘coercive’ legislation often backfires. Moreover, they say, such a legislation is unnecessary given the trends in population in Karnataka.
The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) — average number of children a woman would have in the course of her life — of Karnataka stands at 1.7 as per the recent National Family Health Survey-5, 2019-20, much below the replacement levels of 2.1, the rate at which the population replaces itself. It has steadily declined from 2.8 in NFHS-1, 1990-92 to 1.7 in NFHS- 5.
No coercive legislations
T.V. Sekher, Professor and Head, Department of Population Policies and Programmes, International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, argued against any coercive legislation to control population. He said we need to learn from the experience of China and the country during the Emergency in the 1970s, both of which ‘failed’. The Chinese experience has shown that such coercive measures led to abortions, forced sterilisations and an alarming levels of female foeticide pushing the country into a population crisis — dwindling workforce, rapidly growing aged populations, and highly imbalanced sex ratio, he said.
Dr. Sekher said TFR was coming down and was near replacement levels in most regions except in States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where too it was on the decline in the last decade. He pointed out that Karnataka had a long history in successful family planning programmes. “It is relevant to note that it was the progressive princely Mysore state which opened the first government run family planning centre in the world in 1930,” he said.
Population Foundation of India, a Delhi-based NGO working on demographic issues, while opposing any coercive law, pointed out that not only was the TFR of the State lower than replacement levels, data from NFHS-5 showed that the desired fertility rate — the average number of children women of reproductive age desire to have — was even lower at 1.38. “The State, therefore, needs to expand the basket of contraceptive choices,” the foundation said in a statement.
Kannada activists have also opposed the proposal, arguing when the TFR of the State was below replacement levels, it only hurts the State’s interests if curtailed further. “Ideally, the Centre must not give targets to States to achieve TFR below replacement levels,” said Anand G., of Banavasi Balaga, a Kannada activists forum.
Given population is the main criterion for tax devolution and political representation, there are other concerns too. “Given that the reduction in TFR is not spatially uniform across States, there was a consensus to consider 1971 census data for tax devolution and parliamentary seats delimitation. But the incumbent government has broken that consensus during the 15th Finance Commission, taking the 2011 census as the base, and is feared to do the same in the upcoming delimitation exercise in 2026. If that happens, States that have performed well over the past decades in population control to achieve the national objective will be unfairly punished,” said Congress legislator Krishna Byre Gowda, former representative of the State to the GST Council.
Mr. Byre Gowda said the proposal championed in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh was nothing but a “dog whistle” to communalise the issue. “When our TFR is below replacement levels, what is the point in bringing a two-child policy? Voluntarily people of our State are having less than two children,” he argued. Meanwhile, Law Minister Basavaraj Bommai has tried to strike a balance. He told media persons recently that such a policy must be backed by data and can only be considered after detailed deliberations with experts.