The right-wing government in India’s most populous state has proposed a controversial legislation aimed at curbing its population growth, with experts calling the move “coercive” and fearing it may lead to increased gender inequality.
Last week, a draft law, titled Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021, was unveiled by Uttar Pradesh state’s law commission, asking the public to share their suggestions on it by July 19.
The bill proposes to make people with more than two children ineligible for state government jobs, disentitle those already in service to promotions, and exclude them from the benefits of as many as 77 government schemes.
It also suggests incentives such as tax rebates for people with two or less children in the state, home to more than 200 million people.
According to the draft, anyone violating the two-child policy in the state will also be debarred from contesting local bodies elections.
Government employees following the two-child policy will be eligible for incentives such as two additional increments during their service, subsidy on purchase of land or house, and a 3 percent increase in Employee Provident Fund under the National Pension Scheme.
Those with one child will get four additional increments in their jobs and free healthcare and education for their child till the age of 20.
The draft says those who are not in government service but follow the two-child policy will get rebates on water and electricity bills, housing tax and home loans from banks.
‘Coercion not acceptable’
But experts say there is no evidence to suggest that such a law will help in bringing down the fertility rate. Instead, they fear, it would lead to increased gender inequality.
“There is no evidence to show that proposing incentives or disincentives for adherence to the two-child norm will be effective,” Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, told Al Jazeera.
“The proposed bill has the potential to lead to increased gender inequality, skewed sex ratio, exacerbation of malnutrition and an inevitable rise in unsafe abortions.”
According to India’s National Family Health Survey conducted in 2015-16, Uttar Pradesh has a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.7, which is above the national average of 2.1, Muttreja said.
However, Muttreja said due to the efforts by subsequent governments in Uttar Pradesh, health outcomes have improved since 2015.
“The Technical Group on Population Projections for the Period of 2011-2036, constituted by the National Commission on Population under the ministry of health and family welfare in July 2020 projected that Uttar Pradesh will achieve the replacement level of TFR by 2025, without a need for coercive policies,” Muttreja told Al Jazeera.
According to the United Nations Population Division, a TFR of about 2.1 children per woman is called replacement-level fertility, which, if sustained over a longer period, each generation will exactly replace itself.
Shailaja Chandra, former health ministry secretary and former executive director of National Population Stabilisation Fund, said given its population and high fertility rate, Uttar Pradesh does require “focus at a policy level and a population policy is very much called for”.
But she cautions about the proposed legislation.
“No law will be able to bring down the fertility [rate] and laws which already exist in 12 [Indian] states have not shown any positive change towards people’s reproductive behaviour. So this law is also not going to achieve that,” Chandra told Al Jazeera.
“If you do anything by way of taking away certain benefits, that’s coercion, and coercion is not acceptable … You can’t have a state doing something different from the national policy on such an important subject,” she added.
Ironically, if the provisions of the proposed two-child policy law were to be applied in Uttar Pradesh, half of the legislators belonging to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not be eligible to contest the assembly elections.
At least 152 of the BJP’s 304 elected members to the state assembly have three or more children.
Moreover, Uttar Pradesh is not the only BJP-run state where a chorus of population control has grown recently.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of the northeastern state of Assam, last month announced that his government will gradually implement a two-child policy for availing benefits under specific schemes funded by the state.
In the southern state of Karnataka, BJP leader CT Ravi on Tuesday called for a population control policy on the lines of Assam and Uttar Pradesh.
With “limited natural resources available, it will be difficult to meet the needs of every citizen if there is a population explosion”, he told reporters.
That is why most opposition parties have hit out at the BJP-led government over the proposed bill, with the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party terming the move as “election propaganda”.
“BJP has failed in delivering on its promises in Uttar Pradesh and now when the elections are just months away, it wants to divert the attention of media and opposition from its failures through these non-issues,” Samajwadi Party spokesman Rajendra Chaudhary told Al Jazeera.
Assembly elections are due in Uttar Pradesh early next year.
Even Nitish Kumar, a prominent BJP ally and chief minister of neighbouring Bihar state, and the right-wing party’s ideological partner, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), have raised objections against the proposed law in Uttar Pradesh.
Days after proposing the draft bill, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath unveiled the Uttar Pradesh Population Policy 2021-30 to mark World Population Day on Sunday.
The policy aims at bringing down the gross fertility rate among women to 2.1 by 2026 and to 1.9 by the year 2030.
Calling the rising population “a hurdle in development”, Adityanath said he wanted to stabilise the state’s population and reduce maternal and infant deaths in a time-bound manner.
Muttreja of the Population Foundation of India pointed out the “complete contrast” between the proposed law and the government’s population policy based on a “non-coercive, life-cycle approach”.
“If the proposed bill was to come into effect it would completely overturn the policy, rendering it irrelevant and ineffective,” she said, adding that the concern and alarm around “population explosion” are not substantiated by data.
“There is no evidence that there is a population explosion in either India or Uttar Pradesh,” she told Al Jazeera.
India is projected to overtake China as the most populous country by 2025.
But statistics show that India’s population growth peaked decades ago and is now on a downward trajectory. In fact, 24 of India’s 29 states have already achieved a TFR of 2.1.
Yet, the bogey of population explosion is often used by India’s right-wing groups, including the BJP, to target the minority Muslims, with their conspiracy theories saying the community plans to outnumber Hindus, who constitute 80 percent of the country’s population as opposed to 14 percent Muslims.
In a column in the Indian Express newspaper, SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India and author of The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India, wondered what provoked two BJP chief ministers to suddenly announce population policies.
“In both cases, keeping the cauldron boiling for communal polarisation is the probable answer, and probable electoral gains for Yogi Adityanath in the impending election,” he wrote.
Two-child norms ‘anti-women’
India’s family planning programme is voluntary in nature, which enables the couples to decide the size of their families and adopt family planning methods best suited to them, without any compulsion.
In December last year, India’s health ministry, in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, said coercing people to have a certain number of children would be “counterproductive” and lead to a “demographic distortion”.
A study published in The Lancet in July 2020 found that continued trends in female educational attainment and access to contraception will hasten the decline in fertility and slow population growth.
Chandra suggested the Uttar Pradesh government should “segregate” the state into districts and focus on those districts where the fertility rate is high.
Muttreja said two-child norms are known to “disproportionately impact the most deprived and vulnerable, particularly women and girls, who already have little to no access to health and education”.
“This further impacts their ability to make decisions regarding their health and wellbeing,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and restrictions have compounded inequities and vulnerabilities of the most marginalised.”
Kavita Krishnan, a feminist and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), said the Uttar Pradesh bill is “based on the racist premise that India has ‘overpopulation’ and that Indians should thus reproduce less than, say, American, British or Australian people”.
“Similar laws in China further worsened the sex ratio, the same will happen in India,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The law will penalise women, preventing them from being able to contest elections or seek welfare benefits, even though women do not control decisions relating to the number of children in our patriarchal culture.”