By Poonam Muttreja
In recent years, there have been ongoing debates, campaigns and demands for the implementation of coercive population control policies in India. Aimed at reducing population growth, these conversations are not backed by concrete evidence. On the contrary, review of policy measures that enforce a two-child or one-child norm demonstrate no evidence of effectiveness of this point of view, and instead highlight their adverse outcomes. It therefore becomes imperative to steer the current discourse towards critical evidence-based facts and take cognizance of its potentially negative ramifications.
Over the years, India has achieved a steady decline in its fertility rates and a slowing down of its population growth. India was one of the first country to introduce a family planning programme back in 1952 and has, ever since, witnessed a steady decline in growth rate, from 24.7 percent in 1971-1981 to 17.7 percent in 2001-2011 (Census data). The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)–4 revealed that 24 states in the country have already achieved replacement level fertility (of 2.1), which means that couples are increasingly choosing to have two children. India’s declining fertility can largely be attributed to key determinants like increasing emphasis on women’s education and their participation in the labour force.
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A closer look at global experiences around the enforcement of a population control law reveal its potentially disastrous consequences. For instance, China’s infamous one-child-per-couple policy and the subsequent two-child policy in 2015, have had several unintended consequences ranging from forced sterilizations and abortions to the abandonment of girl children, falling birth rates, skewed sex ratios, a rapidly growing ageing population, and a shrinking workforce.
Violation of human rights
A population control policy is not only a gross violation of fundamental human rights but will also have the maximum impact on the poorest, weakest and most marginalized sections of a country. It could have long-term, irreversible consequences, something perhaps China has learned the hard way.
The National Population Policy, 2000 includes a commitment towards “voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens while availing reproductive health care services, and continuation of the target-free approach in administering family planning services”. A coercive population control measure would be in direct contradiction to the tenets of this policy and stands against India’s international commitments, including the landmark ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) plan of action.
Furthermore, the implementation of a one-child or two-child policy law will not result in immediate population reduction. Past trends in fertility and mortality from 1951 to 1981 have shaped the Indian population structure in such a way that there is a ‘bulge’ in the proportion of people in their prime reproductive age. This group accounts for 53% of India’s population today. Even if this group were to produce fewer children compared to previous generations, there will still be an increase in the absolute number of people. This pattern of growth is termed as “Population Momentum”. Approximately 70 percent of the total projected population increase today is due to this large young population in their childbearing years.
India with its large proportion of young persons will take some time before the results of declining fertility start showing explicitly. In other words, India is like a fast-moving express train whose brakes have just been applied, but since it is very heavy and moving very fast, it will take some time to come to a complete halt. The important thing is to note that the brakes have been applied as evident from the declining fertility and decadal growth rates.
The only way to slow down the momentum is to delay age at marriage, delay the first pregnancy and ensure spacing between births. Indian women in the reproductive age group still face several barriers in accessing contraception. According the fourth National Family Health Survey, approximately 30 million (13 percent) Indian women have an unmet need for contraception, which means that they are unable to delay or prevent their pregnancy due to their inability to access contraception for various reasons. In fact, unmet need for contraceptives contributes to 20 percent of the projected population growth and only 10 percent is due to high desired fertility.
The right way forward
30 percent of India’s population comprises of young people (10-24 years) and about 65 percent are below the age of 35 today. Greater investments in this young population could have great socio-economic developmental outcomes for the nation in years to come. These investments include greater access to education and livelihood opportunities and meeting the health needs of this population, including their reproductive needs. Access to quality family planning and reproductive health services and counseling services implore urgent attention. In fact, a recent study by the Population Foundation of India, entitled “Cost of Inaction in Family Planning in India: An Analysis of Health and Economic Implications”, revealed that the implementation of family planning interventions and programmes to their maximum potential and within a rights based approach could result in an additional per capita Gross Domestic Product of 13 percent by the year 2031 for India.
It’s time we don’t count people but count on people. The focus needs to shift to measures that enable and empower young people and women, and expand access to quality reproductive health services. The country must invest in sustainable solutions that preserve the rights and interests of its citizens with non-coercive family planning policies as the fulcrum.
(Poonam Muttreja is the Executive Director of Population Foundation of India. Views expressed are the author’s own)