Efficacy of two-child norm has never been demonstrated, says Population Foundation of India’s Poonam Muttreja

We need to address inequality, and social and gender discrimination, says Poonam Muttreja, Population Foundation of India

June 30, 2021 08:04 pm | Updated 09:12 pm IST

Poonam Muttreja, executive director, Population Foundation of India

Poonam Muttreja, executive director, Population Foundation of India

In the recent past, States like Uttar Pradesh and Assam, and and Union Territories like Lakshadweep, have proposed to implement a two-child norm as a pre-condition for getting government jobs or to get nominated or elected to Panchayat elections. What has been the impact of such policies so far?Jagriti Chandra interviewed executive director, Population Foundation of India , Poonam Muttreja , on e-mail.

Which are the States in the country that have enforced the two-child norm in one way or the other? What do we know about their experiences?

Under the policy on the two child-norm introduced by States so far, anyone who has more than two children cannot be elected or nominated to Panchayat and other local bodies’ elections. In a few States, the policy has prohibited persons with more than two children from serving in government jobs or availing benefits of various government schemes. However, it is to be noted that States are implementing different aspects of the two-child norm as per their priorities.

So far, 12 States have introduced the two-child norm. These include, Rajasthan (1992), Odisha (1993), Haryana (1994), Andhra Pradesh (1994), Himachal Pradesh (2000), Madhya Pradesh (2000), Chhattisgarh (2000), Uttarakhand (2002), Maharashtra (2003), Gujarat (2005), Bihar (2007) and Assam (2017). Of these, four States have revoked the norm — Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana.

Also read: Health data shows India doesn’t need a two-child policy: experts

The policy on the two-child norm has not been independently evaluated in any State and its efficacy has never been demonstrated. A five-State study by a former senior Indian Administrative Service officer (IAS) Nirmala Buch found that, instead, in the States that adopted a two-child policy, there was a rise in sex-selective and unsafe abortions; men divorced their wives to run for local body elections; and families gave up children for adoption to avoid disqualification.

Recently, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma urged Muslims in his State to adopt “decent population control measures”, vocalising fears of many from the Right wing. Is this fear justified?

The statement by the Assam Chief Minister is not based on facts. The use of any modern contraceptive methods [female and male sterilisations, IUD (intrauterine device)/PPIUD (postpartum IUD), pills and condoms] is the highest amongst currently married Muslim women, at 49%, compared to 45.7% for Christian women and 42.8% for Hindu women, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), 2019-20, in the State.

Also read: Himanta Biswa Sarma defends move on population control

If we look at the unmet need amongst different religious groups in Assam, unmet need for Muslim women is 12.2%, compared to Hindu women (10.3%) and Christian women (10.2%), according to NFHS-5 data. This indicates that Muslim women want to use contraceptive methods, but are not able to do so due to lack of access to family planning methods or due to lack of agency.

77% currently married women and 63% of men, aged 15-49, in Assam want no more children, are already sterilised or have a spouse who is already sterilised. More than 82% of women and 79% of men consider the ideal family size to be two or fewer children (NFHS-5 data).

Also read: Lakshadweep’s proposed two-child norm for panchayat polls ‘flawed’

However, their need for family planning is not met. The State needs to expand the basket of contraceptive choices, especially spacing methods, which are critical in view of the large percentage of young people in our population, and also make them available up to the last mile. Providing better access and quality of healthcare for young people will not only lead to improved health, but will also visibly improve educational outcomes, increase productivity and workforce participation, and in turn result in increased household incomes and economic growth for the state.

These measures are often suggested because of concerns over population explosion. Are these valid?

There is no evidence that there is a population explosion in the country. India has already started experiencing a slowing down in population growth and a decline in fertility rate, The Indian Census data on Population confirms that the decadal growth rate during 2001-2011 had reduced to 17.7% from 21.5% over 1991-2001. Similarly, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is decreasing in India, going down from 3.4 in 1992-93 to 2.2 in 2015-16 (NFHS data).

There is also no evidence that coercive policies work. Stringent population control measures could potentially lead to an increase in sex selective practices, given the strong son-preference in India.

It is important to note here that States such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu have experienced significant reduction in fertility rates without any coercive methods. This has been achieved by empowering women and by providing better education and healthcare facilities.

A UN report forecast that India will surpass China as the most populous country by 2027, while Chinese experts have said that could happen as early as 2024. Should we be worried?

India, with a current population size of 1.37 billion, has the second largest population in the world. By 2027, India is expected to overtake China to become the most populous country (UN World Population Prospects 2019). The overall size of population will continue to increase for some more time as two-thirds of India’s population is under 35 years. Even if this cohort of young population produces only one or two children per couple, it will still result in a quantum increase in population size before stabilising, which as per current projections will happen around 2050.

Also read: China’s coercive population measures serve as warning for India: Experts

A recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle, published in The Lancet indicates that India is expected to reach its peak population of 1.6 billion by 2048, which seemingly comes 12 years faster when compared to the World Population Prospects projections of the UN. India is also projected to have a continued steep decline in total fertility rate, which will reach 1.3, along with a total population of 1.1 billion in 2100. There is no reason to be concerned.

What we need to be concerned about are prevailing widespread deprivation, inequality and social and gender discrimination in access to health, education and employment opportunities, which need to be addressed. Family planning is largely considered a woman’s responsibility, which is reflected in the low male engagement in family planning programmes. According to data from NFHS-4, less than 6% of men use condoms and male sterilisations are also low (less than 1%). Burdened by the sole responsibility of family, women often resort to abortions as a proxy for contraception. According to a study published in The Lancet , 15.6 million abortions took place in India in 2015.

What are the lessons for India from the China experience, which recently relaxed its two-child norm and has allowed couples to have up to three children?

India has to learn from China about what we should not be doing. China had a one-child policy as a state law for 35 years until the country was forced to lift it in 2016, when it introduced a two-child policy. China has now announced (in May 2021) that it will allow couples to have up to three children , after census data showed a steep decline in birth rates as the country finds itself in the midst of a population crisis.

The Hindu In Focus Podcast | Why India’s population may overtake China’s sooner than expected

In fact, it was observed that “China’s dramatic post-1978 economic boom and the profound social changes, unleashed by rising incomes and levels of education and rapid urbanisation, would have driven down birth rates even in the absence of State birth planning campaigns.”

We can learn from other countries, such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia about what we should be doing. In Sri Lanka, fertility rates were stabilised by simply increasing the age at marriage, a move that was made more effective by ensuring girls were educated. If we look at the family planning programmes of Indonesia and Bangladesh, two Muslim-dominated countries, they have outperformed India in terms of falling birth rates. What has made the difference are a combination of factors, which include higher levels of female education, greater employment opportunities, and access to a bigger basket of contraceptive choices.

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