UP’s proposed population-control law gets it wrong: The need is to address factors leading to above-replacement fertility
By Ashwini Deshpande,
The Uttar Pradesh (UP) government’s new population policy for 2021-30 rekindles the obsolete belief that families with too many children are keeping the population poor and backward. Is it really the case that too many families have too many children? The total fertility rate (TFR) in India has declined significantly over the last two decades, with 19 of the 22 states for which data were released in 2020, showing a below-replacement fertility, i.e. in these states a woman bore less than 2 children in her entire reproductive life, according to figures released by the government’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Admittedly, UP is not one of these 22 states. But neighbouring Bihar is, a state whose socio-economic profile is very similar (certainly not better) than UP. Of the 22 states, Bihar has the highest TFR at 3 in 2020, which is a reduction from 3.4 in 2015-16. Thus, even in Bihar, TFR has declined. Within Bihar, urban women have a TFR of 2.4, whereas rural women have a TFR of 3.1. It is highly unlikely that UP has a higher TFR than rural Bihar and/or UP’s TFR bucked the national trend and did not decline.
Thus, TFR in UP in 2020 is most likely around 3, i.e. an average woman has 3 children during her entire reproductive life. Clearly this policy is not about too many children in general. The subtext underlying the policy (heard all too often in slogans such as “hum do, humare pachchis”—the two of us with our 25 children). The unstated, or often stated, argument is that “certain communities” have too many children. This should have been laid to rest decades back, but keeps getting resurrected to stoke majoritarian fears.
Fortunately, for those who believe in facts, The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India, by SY Quraishi, busts this myth comprehensively. Resistance to family planning is often invoked as an Islamic practice. CEDA’s work shows that there is hardly any religious difference in adoption of contraception: the real divide is a gender one. Men—both Hindu and Muslim—are much more resistant to adopting contraception than women (bit.ly/3wtSssA).
While there is no factual basis for the belief in excess fertility, let us assume for arguments’ sake that there is a behaviour that the government wants to change through policy. What would work better: carrots or sticks? That depends on what the behaviour is. If individuals knowingly flout traffic rules for selfish reasons, they should be penalised. However, if there are social or economic compulsions that lead to a particular behaviour, policy needs to focus on how the underlying social reality can be changed, so that people’s behaviour changes in response.
If the belief (not supported by data) is that couples are reckless in their fertility, we need to ask why parents would desire that extra child? There are many reasons, the chief among which is deep-rooted son preference, which incidentally is the strongest among Hindu and Sikh communities. If a strict limit on the number of children is imposed, it would only lead to a worsening of the sex ratio at birth as parents are even more motivated to illegally abort female fetuses to get the desired sex ratio among their children.
High infant and child mortality are other factors that lead to excess fertility. These are highly correlated with poverty and poor quality of healthcare: if parents are uncertain about how many (and which) children will survive into adulthood, they are more likely to have more than two children. Thus, penalising families for having more than two children, without recognising and addressing the factors that lead to above-replacement fertility, is harsh and won’t solve the problem.
The carrots in the UP policy are for one-child families. The number of children (including zero) is a decision best left to parents. China, recognising the drastic negative social consequences of three decades of a one-child policy, has now ended it. The real issue in fertility decisions is that women, who do the hard work of bearing and rearing children, have very little agency and say in these decisions.
“Too many children” is a spectre of the past, erroneously invoked to stoke majoritarian fears. The reality of the present is a set of factors that are extremely frightening: high infant and child mortality, chronic malnutrition, high maternal mortality, poor quality of healthcare, particularly for women of all religions. UP is not unique in these respects, but is among the worst performers. These problems can neither be wished nor beaten away. These are not rooted in individual choices but reflect systemic and persistent disadvantages to address which we need a radical, democratic, empathetic, inclusive and egalitarian policy overhaul.
The author is Professor of economics, and director, Centre for Economic Data and Analysis, Ashoka University