Law | South Asia

21 October 2021

India’s most populous state is planning to implement a population control policy that will be dangerous for its most vulnerable citizens, Kanav Narayan Sahgal writes.

On 19 July, the Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission released a draft of its Population (Control, Stabilisation, and Welfare) Bill, 2021.

This was just days before the state’s chief minister unveiled a new population policy. With a population of approximately 231 million people, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state, and its population has risen rapidly in the last decade, from approximately 199 million people in 2011.

Importantly, it has also consistently lagged behind the rest of India in almost all major measures of wellbeing and social progress, including food security, gender equality, and literacy.

One recent study found that while some Indian states like Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat had been growing economically by an average of seven per cent since the 1990s, others – including Uttar Pradesh – were lagging behind.

A key reason for this has been ineffective human capital investment and development over years, and some policymakers have blamed the high population for low skill levels. Population density in the state is more than double India’s national average, yet a large chunk of its people remained unskilled and illiterate.

The government’s solution, in lieu of investing in skills, has been to try and stabilise the growing population. To do this, its new population policy is to create laws and incentives to coerce families into adhering a ‘two-child norm’. However, this will most definitely fail.

More on this: How China has been working through its population problems

Consider the draft population bill. It takes a carrot-and-stick approach towards population growth. It promises government incentives to couples who adhere to the two-child norm by undergoing voluntary sterilisation following the birth of one or two children and prescribes disincentives to couples who transgress this norm.

Some incentives include housing subsidies, soft loans for constructing or purchasing a house, tax rebates, increased pensions, and free health care facilities.

As for disincentives, those who have three children or more would not only be ineligible for these benefits, but they would also be barred from accessing other government-sponsored welfare schemes, contesting local elections, applying to government jobs, and have limited access to food rations.

The bill has other issues too. On the issue of disability rights, the bill is not just vague, but outright discriminatory. The bill states that a couple birthing a third child would not be in contravention of the law if the previous two children suffered from a disability.

This effectively means the law doesn’t consider disabled children worthy of the same rights and privileges as their able-bodied counterparts. Some have argued that because the bill allows a ‘do-over’ after birthing one or two disabled children, it further propagates ableist narratives in India.

Other scholars have raised concerns that in other jurisdictions these policies have had a negative impact on women, including leading to increases in sex-selective abortions and women giving up wanted children for adoption to avoid disincentives.

More on this: Deflating the myth of a demographic time bomb

The bill notes this and acknowledges the government’s responsibilities in establishing maternity centres in all primary health centers in the state, distributing contraceptives, and spreading awareness of family planning methods in collaboration with non-governmental organisations and community health workers.

However, the practical outcomes and tone of the policy are fundamentally discriminatory towards children with disabilities and all couples who should have control over their own families, and no amount of ‘collaboration’ changes this. Population studies scholars have pointed out that the two-child norm policies in six Indian states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa bore disastrous results.

These policies were riddled with ambiguities and loopholes, and government officials consistently failed to educate their constituents about the existence of such policies, rendering those families with more than two children extra vulnerable.

There is no reason to believe that this would pan out differently on Uttar Pradesh. Even though such population control policies are drafted with the intention of being bias-free, they end up hurting vulnerable sections of the society the most, whether scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, low-income people, people with disabilities, and women.

Given the widespread and reasonable criticism of the bill among public policy and health experts, the government must scrap it. It should instead focus on enhancing the capabilities of its citizens and building their skills.

The government should also ensure that all family planning programs in the future are in line with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 which explicitly prohibits all forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities in India.

The current bill does none of these things, making it morally dubious at best, and possibly even unconstitutional. In its current form, it will only hurt couples in Uttar Pradesh without solving the state’s deeper problems, and must not become law.

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