INDIA ON CHINA’S FOOTSTEPS: Population Control Policy and the Indian Demography

By – Karishma Maheshwari, SY BBA LLB (Hons.)

India has perpetually been facing the problems of inequality in resource distribution, poverty, illiteracy, degrading environmental quality, etc. While these diverse problems have varying causes, all these problems are said to have a common nexus with respect to their cause. It is often asserted that the “population explosion” in India and its greatly dense population is a major contributing factor to most of its socio-economic issues. This poses a question of whether India needs a population control policy that could constrain the unbridled boom in population growth.

Recently, the Supreme Court heard and issued a notice in a Public Interest Litigation on the uncontrolled problem of population explosion affecting Indians. It highlighted the nexus between the problem of population explosion and the problems in sectors like education, health, cleanliness, environment, the criminal justice system, etc. The rising population has, according to the PIL, led to unequal distribution of resources in the Indian population, where the benefits of basic necessities are not being able to reach every strata of society. The plea was filed by Adv. Ashwini Upadhyay, who argued that due to this unequal distribution of resources, the right to life of Indian citizens is being violated. Right to health, shelter, livelihood, education, clean air, drinking water, etc. are the imperatives, and yet India faces shortages due to overpopulation. It has been contended that the growth of the population can be curtailed by bringing in population control measures. There are many opposing views to this technique of controlling population, and some also reject the idea of making ‘population’ the root cause of the issue. This article would highlight a few major criticisms of such a population controlling policy.

NATURE OF A FAMILY PLANNING POLICY News headlines such as “UP might Bring Changes in Family Planning Rules, Couples With More than 2 Kids May be Debarred From Welfare Schemes” give a true glimpse of the extent to which ‘population-controlling policies’ could expand their ambit. It is important to know the nature and working of a family planning policy aimed at controlling population growth. The most famously discussed type of family planning policy is the “two-child policy.” The nearest and the most real example of this is the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021, which lists multiple incentives and disincentives for couples with children. This two-child policy of Uttar Pradesh incentivizes couples to have not more than two children, for which they would get, inter alia, educational, healthcare, and public servant jobs benefits. Disincentives to couples with more than two children include consequences like debarring them from benefits of public welfare schemes or snatching their eligibility to contest in local body elections. Policies such as this hide under the garb of “voluntary” actions, and yet go on to mention the benefit of trading your rights to government policies (for which people pay tax), in exchange of getting “voluntary” sterilization after having your first child.

While the judiciary and the legislature are seriously deliberating on such a family planning policy, it is important to consider the counter side and repercussions of implementing the same. There are various aspects through which a population-control family-planning policy could be analysed. For the purpose of this article, the author would give a demographic angle and a legal angle to the possibility of a population control policy in India.

DEMOGRAPHIC IMPACTS

Since population, especially working/youth population, is closely related to the economy, any strict birth control programme like the 2-child policy is likely to reduce birth rate as planned. But this fall in birth rate would increase the rate of dependent population and reduce the working population of many generations in the near future. How would India combat this, something that is similar to what is happening in China? The declining working population also has far-reaching long-term effects. For instance, a rapidly declining working population would lead to a higher tax burden on people, as each working person has to “support” more people. Problems of economic stagnation are much expected with a decline in the growth rate of the population. Anyhow, many studies suggest that India’s population is expected to have a peak somewhere near 2050, post which it will show a steep declining trajectory. Once disturbed, India’s TFR as a country cannot be reversed. Any unnatural disturbance to the natural graph of India’s population could greatly disturb the future required growth rate. Hence, artificially handling the growth rate of a country could damage it to irreparable limits and must be avoided at all costs.

With growing awareness among people, increasing literacy rate, and women empowerment, the decline in family size can already be observed to an extent. For example, Kerala has shown a downward trend of birth rate by using welfare as means of controlling the population rather than any policy imposition to reduce the TFR. Consistent investment in healthcare and education, awareness about contraceptives, and other policies have collectively helped the State manage its population. India should be left to follow a natural course of deciding its Total Fertility Rate. Constructive modes, rather than destructive ones, should be used to go about the same. Encouragement instead of coercion must be used to achieve the envisioned welfare state.

LEGALITY OF SUCH A POLICY

While looking at the macro-level issue of demographic disruption due to this policy, it is equally important to analyse it at a micro-level with its impacts on individuals and their fundamental rights.

In the PIL before the Apex court, Ashwini Upadhyay had mentioned that without controlling the population explosion, we observe the violation of people’s right to clean air, drinking water, health, peaceful sleep, shelter, livelihood, and education guaranteed under Articles 21 and 21A of the Indian Constitution. However, the consequences of a 2-child policy bring in a clash between fundamental rights where, while we aim to guarantee citizens their above-mentioned rights, such a forceful policy would violate people’s right to life and right to personal liberty under Article 21 itself. While the UP government, in its draft, uses words like “voluntary stabilisation” of population, it also goes on to mention major disincentives and penalties for individuals with more than one or two children. Such unfair disincentivizing, tactics more often than not, prove to be coercive in nature. Furthermore, coercion in instances like controlling birth in an individual has proven to have caused mass forceful abortions and cases of forceful vasectomy in exchange for relief from such penalties or in lieu of gaining the benefits of important government schemes. China, as a witness to the ills of such a policy, is a testimony to these foreseeable aftermaths.

There is a clash made out between the bodily autonomy of couples with their right to procreate as opposed to the right of the larger public to access basic necessities under Article 21 and 21A. A population control law proposing a small family structure would surely be utilitarian in nature. However, the right of couples to procreate cannot rationally be weighed against this utilitarian welfare. Moreover, rationally, no direct nexus can be sought out between a couple procreating and, say, poverty in the state. This essentially means that problems allegedly caused by over-population can have multiple other ways with which they can be tackled and solved. An extreme measure such as this policy, with known deleterious long-term impacts, is better not opted for.

WAY FORWARD AND CONCLUSION

Quick fixes with seemingly fruitful short-term gains should not be used in policy-making at a country-level. The efficient functioning of a country requires vision and acumen, along with the trust of its people in its leaders. Such a coercive policy has much probability of bringing down the public’s confidence in their leaders and may as well lead to disharmony between the State, Judiciary, and the Citizens.

While the plea by Adv. Ashwini Upadhyay in the Supreme Court appeals also to the law commission to form a report on a population control policy, in pursuance of the same, the policymakers must deliberate on whether such a policy is desperately needed or if it has any alternatives. Pursuing less harsh alternatives such as the effective implementation of existing policies could go a long way in solving most of the existing issues without having to add another policy document in the archives of the Parliament. The smooth functioning of bureaucracy and reduction in corruption can ease the problem of resource distribution among the public. Problems of corruption can be well handled and transparency in the executive can also be achieved via a strong and reliable office of Ombudsman or Lokpal (example of another weakly implemented idea). The idea of the population itself could be dealt with by incentivising a certain age gap between two consecutive offspring. It is important, however, to note that such policies must not put harsh disincentives by taking away from people their entitled share of public welfare schemes, etc.

Having understood this perspective, it becomes irrational to blame and directly link population to unemployment, malnutrition, shortage of drinking water, rising crime, etc. It must therefore be realised that problems like shortages may be linked to improper distribution of resources, malnutrition may be due to the neglect of the State to reach the lowest economic sections. Similarly, policy-makers and the executive need to target each problem separately and collectively to be able to solve them. A one-solution-fits-all principle is best not resorted to, and all the country’s socio-economic issues must be dealt with minutely.

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