Adityanath’s population bill limits pregnancy, not progeny

And its emphasis on ‘voluntary sterilization’ is worrying.

BySidharth Singh
Adityanath’s population bill limits pregnancy, not progeny
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As the Uttar Pradesh Population Control, Stabilization and Welfare Bill 2021 stirred controversy, the TV media mainly focussed on its incentives, disincentives, and its stipulations for government jobs. They glossed over its emphasis on “voluntary sterilization”.

The bill seeks to limit the number of children a couple can have to two because, it claims, Uttar Pradesh has “limited ecological and economic resources”. It aims to do so by providing couples who adopt the policy a range of incentives, from pay increments and tax rebates to subsidies and even cash. Not adhering to the norm will mean exclusion from welfare schemes, local elections, state employment.

TV news channels have widely covered this aspect of the bill, if only with a thick sprinkling of communal dogwhistling as usual. What they haven’t covered as much is that even if you have just two children but don’t get sterilised, you will be deemed not to have adhered to the norm. The bill goes even further, promising additional benefits to those who get sterilised after having only one child.

Although legislation in India is infamous for being wrapped in a dry prose of bare reason, the Adityanath government’s new bill makes a hamfisted attempt at fiction. In detailing exceptions to the rule – adoption, disability, death, technicalities of pregnancy – it provides “illustrations” to explain its stipulations. Which once parsed makes you realise that the bill’s focus is not on controlling population as such but on controlling pregnancy.

If a couple lose a child and then have two more, one after the other – three pregnancies, that’s – they will fall foul of the bill. But if they have two kids in a single birth – two pregnancies in total – they won’t.

Indeed, multiple births and pregnancies is a running theme in the bill, only it’s muddled. An illustration in section 15 dealing with disability essentially shows that a couple can technically have as many as four children without violating the policy so long as one of them is disabled and two are twins.

In effect, who receives benefits under the proposed law will be determined not by how many children they have but how many pregnancies. One can easily have three children so long as they are born through only two pregnancies.

Not surprisingly, given its muddled logic, the bill has invited wide criticism. It’s not even needed to begin with. The chief minister claims the bill is aimed at controlling population by reducing UP’s fertility rate to 2.1 by 2026 and 1.9 by 2030. But the fertility rate is already coming down in UP as elsewhere in the country. According to the National Family Health Survey of 2016, UP’s fertility rate is 2.7, down from 3.8 a decade earlier and not far off the population replacement rate of 2.1, which many Indian states have already achieved.

Poonam Muttreja, the director of the Population Foundation of India, has been pointing out that falling fertility rates render the notion of a population explosion a myth. As for Uttar Pradesh, she says family planning and not population control is what is needed.

Moreover, similar policies have had disastrous consequences elsewhere. China enforced a one-child policy in 1979, before allowing two children in 2016 and, most recently, three. The country’s communist rulers employed a similar policy of offering incentives – better job opportunities, higher wages, financial assistance – to couples who adopted the one-child norm. Those who didn't were subjected to, at minimum, fines and restricted or revoked access to government assistance and jobs. The policy was supposed to be “voluntary”, but the communist dictatorship went on to force abortions and sterilizations.

In just a few decades, the policy resulted in China having one of the most skewed gender ratios in favour of men in the world, an aging population, and a shrinking workforce.

One could argue, as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has, that UP’s population bill actually aims for a one-child norm, since that is what it incentivises the most.

Another lesson from China is that authoritarian governments can’t be given the power to manipulate the population. They invariably resort to aggression when the policy doesn’t work “voluntarily”.

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The UP population bill is now publicly available. You can submit suggestions about it, if you wish, to statelawcommission2018@gmail.com by July 19.

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