GUWAHATI: Goal of Assam’s draft Population Policy 2017 (draft) that, “every family in Assam should have access to quality education, healthcare and employment opportunities” is well-meaning and commendable.

Some of the measures that it proposes to adopt, like free education for girls up to university level, special strategy to lower drop-out rates for girls, prevent under-age marriages, care for the elderly, affirmative action to increase women’s participation in the workforce, and improve quality of health service delivery would go a long way in helping the State achieve this policy goal.

At the same time, the disincentives that it proposes to introduce for people having more than two children, need to be reviewed. The proposal to make people with more than two children ineligible for government employment and electoral participation in Panchayat and Municipal Body elections, along with introduction of minimum educational qualification criteria, will limit opportunities for those who may be the weakest component of the “demographic asset” that the proposed policy seeks to “nurture”.

This has been proven in other states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Odisha that have implemented similar policies. The powerful have been able to use it to their advantage by finding ways to evade the norm as well as by using it to settle scores with their opponents. Men disowned their wives/children, women had to undergo unsafe abortions or forego exercising their democratic right of political participation.

The total fertility rate (TFR, average number of children expected to be born per woman) of Assam is same as the national figure of 2.2 (NFHS-4). Populations typically go through a cycle of three phases- high birth rates and high death rates, high birth rates and low death rates as medical care increases, and low birth rates and low death rates as standards of living improve along with medical advancement.

Most states in India are in transition from second phase to third phase. TFR of Assam is close to replacement level fertility of 2.1, and in urban Assam, it is much below replacement level fertility, at 1.5 (NFHS-4). Thus, Assam is on its way into the third phase with lowering birth rates. However, the momentum produced by the young cohort will carry through for the next decade or so, after which the effects of low TFR will kick in. In the meanwhile, the single most important factor that will check the momentum, is raising the age of marriage, for which increasing the years of schooling for girls is the most crucial.

This is one of the factors that helped in reduction of fertility rates in Sri Lanka in 1980s and 90s without any coercion. Similar is the story of Kerala that laid emphasis on education and raising the age at marriage. As many as 72.2% women in the age group 15-49 years have 10 or more years of schooling in Kerala, while it is only about a quarter, 26.2% in case of Assam (NFHS-4). Only 7.6% women aged 20-24 years were married before the age of 18 years in Kerala as against 32.6% in Assam (NFHS-4).

While government’s concern regarding the growing population at this point in time may be valid, the route that it wants to adopt to stabilise it, is misplaced.

The groups who have higher fertility rate in Assam and therefore will be most impacted by such exclusionary measures are people in the lowest wealth quintile, those with no education and people belonging to the Muslim community (NFHS-3).

In Assam, Muslims comprise 34% of the state’s total population (Census 2011). As per the Kundu committee report, poverty levels among Muslims are higher than the national average. Thus, the two-child norm will end up targeting these population groups who are anyways marginalised on the path of development.

Considering that the state’s TFR is well on its way downwards and close to reaching the replacement level fertility of 2.1, there is no reason for the state government to panic and take such drastic measures. Rather, it is the healthcare indicators such as highest maternal mortality in the country-at 300 per 100,000 live births as against all-India figure of 167, high infant mortality rate of 48 per 1000 live births (41 for all India) and complete immunisation of less than half the children at 47.1%, which should be the cause of concern (NFHS-4, 2015-16).

Providing better healthcare and taking measures to reduce child mortality will help in further reducing TFR. It is not difficult to understand that lesser the chances of survival of children, more the number of children a couple is likely to have. The use of any modern method of contraception in Assam is 37% (NFHS 4), compared to 47.8% all India. Therefore, focussing on better child survival and increasing access to contraceptive methods of choice would yield better result for the state’s development, rather than the coercive two-child policy.

Sex ratio at birth has reduced from 1033 in 2005-06 to 929 in 2015-16 in Assam. A policy like the two-child policy is likely to further skew the ratio unfavourably as is being seen in the case of China which has an increasingly male population.

The Assam state government should take affirmative measures that would ensure more girls are able to enrol in schools and continue their education well into college, have employment opportunities and can be financially independent and have access to quality healthcare including contraceptives of choice.

The two-child norm mentioned in the draft policy will be antithesis to the policy’s intent of “nurturing the state’s demographic asset”.

(Pallavi Gupta is a public health professional)