The UP Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill 2021 is by far the most draconian assault on the rights of citizens compared to the other 35 or so pieces of legislation, measures for population control, or proposals made in Private Members' Bills in the last few decades. So far, most critics of the Bill see it as 'anti-minority' and an 'election ploy' to divide the people. This may certainly be the intention and agenda of the Adityanath Government. But the scope of the Bill is much wider, making it anti-poor, anti-women and anti-children. Unfortunately, many political parties when they have been in government have themselves adopted punitive measures of population control, and now find it convenient to offer a one-dimensional critique, which only plays into the game of communal polarization that the ruling regime in UP is known for.
In a period of neo-liberal reforms where inequalities have grown hugely, this Bill seeks to deprive citizens of constitutionally and legally-guaranteed rights, and in effect creates two sets of citizens based on fertility. It is well-established that fertility rates are linked to social and economic indicators like poverty, health, literacy, infant mortality. In India, as NFHS data shows, social communities which have higher fertility rates are Scheduled Tribes, Dalits, Muslims, followed by OBCs. Further, women in sections of the population with the lowest income had the highest fertility rate. In other words, they are both poor and socially-oppressed. This Bill punishes the poor and oppressed for their poverty.
In the Bill, Clause (8) and its various sub-clauses debar all benefits from government - sponsored welfare schemes to those who break the two-child norm; they provide for denial of government jobs and even promotions, thus violating labour laws. This is framed as an open-ended clause which means that rights to housing, to education, to various social security schemes can all be denied if a third child is conceived after the Act comes into force. This also means that a third child may be debarred from attending an anganwadi, or access to a mid-day meal. This is not as unlikely as it may seem. A specific sub-clause states that subsidized rations will be given to only four units. This is in clear violation of the Food Security Act that has no such conditions. To circumvent this and other similar issues, the Bill has an obnoxious clause that it "overrides any other law in force."
Can a state government deprive citizens of the benefits of a national law adopted by parliament? Only recently in Delhi, when the Kejriwal Government proposed a scheme to provide doorstep delivery of rations, the Central Government held it was against the Food Security Act. Now, why is it silent on this proposal which deprives a child of rations guaranteed by the same Act? It hardly needs to be stated that such policies will increase hunger, malnutrition and worsen child mortality rates, apart from constituting a gross assault on rights of children. To punish a child for being born - this is what the UP Government proposes.
We know that historically, all population control policies are centred on control over a woman's body and are premised on a denial of a woman's reproductive rights. In India, this patriarchal framework is further strengthened by a culture of son-preference, accompanied by sex selective tests and abortions of female feotuses. Since the data for UP was not available for the first round data of the NFHS-5 published in December 2020 for 18 States and UTs, we go by the figures used by the Niti Aayog for 2015. UP had an alarmingly low sex ratio of just 879 females to 1000 males - one of the worst records in the country. To impose a two-child norm in such a situation will surely lead to further pressures on pregnant women to undergo sex determination tests and abort female fetuses if they do not have a son. Women have little choice in the matter. Since it is women's fertility which is sought to be controlled, most population control measures have a disproportionate impact on women.
This has been witnessed in highly negative experiences of laws passed by several state governments to impose the two-child norm as a condition of eligibility to run for local body elections. Surveys at the time had clearly shown that the main brunt was borne by poor women, including those who would have fought in reserved constituencies. Many women were disqualified. In some cases, where candidates were male, they denied that the third child was theirs. In others, women and children were asked to leave the marital home. A 2009 report supported by the Panchayati Raj Ministry quoted a study which showed that from "21 districts in five states where the two child norm was operational: 54% of the disqualified candidates were either illiterate or had only primary education; 78% of disqualified candidates belonged to SCs/STs/OBCs which are socially weaker sections of population; nearly half the respondents had annual income of less than Rs. 20,000." At the time, the Supreme Court had done a grave disservice to democratic processes by upholding such laws when they were challenged by women's organisations and affected women candidates. The UP Bill includes the two-child norm disqualification clause in local bodies, ignoring past experiences which show its detrimental impact on the democratic rights of the poor, particularly on Dalits, Adivasis and women.
In the Bill, even the so-called incentive clauses from Clauses 4-7 will go against women. Several incentives such as promotions for a government employee, interest-free loans, etc. are conditional on "the employee or spouse" getting sterilized after two children; the incentive goes up if the sterilization is done after one child. It is clear that it is the woman who will be pressurized into getting sterilized. According to a report published by the National Health Mission, between 2017-18, 93.1% of the sterilisations performed in India were on women. Since all the incentives in the Bill are linked to sterilization, we can expect a further increase on the burden on women in this regard.
The UP Bill seeks to resurrect retrograde Malthusian frameworks which were challenged and buried decades ago. The historic International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994 gave the slogan of "development is the best contraceptive"; the declaration was adopted by 179 countries including India. This approach was reflected in the National Population Policy 2000 adopted during Vajpayee-ji's time which committed the government to "a target-free approach" based "on informed and voluntary choice of citizens." In 2019, at the Global Population Comference in Nairobi, India once again reiterated its policy to guaranteeing voluntary and informed choices of contraception. As recently as December 2020, in an ongoing petition in the Supreme Court, the Union Ministry for Health stated in its affidavit that "the Ministry will not implement a mandatory two-child policy by denying government jobs and subsidies." It further stated "international experience shows that any coercion to have a certain number of children is counter-productive and leads to demographic distortions." The regime in Delhi, with its deafening silence on the issue, is encouraging BJP-run governments to reverse this approach.
This reversal from reproductive rights to fertility control comes at a time when data of the NFHS-5 shows a remarkable secular decline of fertility rates. Of the 17 states analysed, all states except Bihar, Manipur and Meghalaya have a TFR of 2.1 or less, which implies that most states have attained replacement-level fertility. The data shows that between 2006-2006 to 2015-2016, while the fertility rate of Hindu households fell from 2.6 to 2.1, the fertility rate of Muslim households registered a sharper fall from 3.4 to 2.6, registering the highest decline of any community. State-wise, the sharpest decline was seen in Assam, where the fertility rate of Muslim women came down from 3.7 to 2.4. This is lower than the fertility rate of Hindu households in Bihar at 2.9. In Jammu and Kashmir, the fertility rate among Muslims is 1.45. This data leads to two important conclusions. The first is that fertility rates are declining in many stated to below replacement-level at 2.1 without the use of coercive laws. Secondly, the communally-motivated propaganda against Muslims regarding family planning is clearly refuted by facts. Population is bound to increase because of the large percentage of younger people who will be planning families. But going by current trends, the Health Ministry has projected that the fertility rate is projected to fall to 1.93 by 2025 and to 1.8 by 2030.
While the UP Government may want to target Muslims, it is the VHP which has come out in opposition to the "one-child norm" mentioned in the Bill. It was none other that the RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat who said in 2016 at a meeting in Agra, "Which law prevents Hindus from having more children? When their population is increasing, why can't yours." Hindutva leaders have exhorted Hindu women to produce more children as their patriotic duty. Will they be happy with this Bill? They may also feel a certain sense of discomfiture with the legal recognition the Bill gives to practices of polygamy. The Bill states in Clause 18 that a Muslim man under personal law may marry more than once - under sub clause (2) his wives can have two children each and qualify for incentives under the law. He will be disqualified from incentives, and disincentives will apply as the numbers of children he produces will be counted cumulatively, but his children and wives will be entitled to benefits.
Opposition parties and leaders would do well to study the Bill and to resist the trap of communalisation. The Bill is an outright attack on the poor. It should be opposed and resisted on secular grounds.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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