In July 2021, Uttar Pradesh announced a population policy, Draft Uttar Pradesh Population Control, Stabilisation and Welfare Bill, 2021, that was astoundingly thoughtless, even as it was demographically unnecessary.

It was of course necessary for political dog-whistling, The Chief Minister of Assam soon announced that Assam too would have a two-child norm in population policy.

That Assam and Uttar Pradesh have joined the long list of dismal states that advocate a stringent two-child norm in population policy is only reflective of how unthinking and thoughtless our policy planners are. Or are they?

Do they perhaps reflect carefully thought out political strategies to weaponize demography, demonise Muslims, and consummate a Hindu vote bank?

These policies are anti-poor, and harm the poor of all communities, Muslims among them. The majority of those harmed would of course be Hindus of the lower castes. They are also anti-women and have been shown to lead to a further skewing of sex ratios. Above all, they stem from a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between population and development: population declines in response to socio-economic development and not the other way around.

On July 30 2003 a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court of India upheld a Haryana Government law prohibiting a person from contesting or holding the post of a sarpanch or panch in the PRIs of the state if he or she had more than two children.

The Bench observed that “disqualification on the right to contest an election for having more than two living children does not contravene any fundamental right, nor does it cross the limits of reasonability. Rather, it is a disqualification conceptually devised in the national interest” (Venkatesan:2003, emphasis added).

Subsequently, in 2005, the Supreme Court added salt to festering wounds by issuing notices to the Centre and states on the implementation of the two-child norm, stepping, once again, on not-too-sensitive legislative toes (Press Trust of India 2005).

Assam and UP are the latest to join Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Orissa with these policy prescriptions which are not only at variance with the National Population Policy 2000, but also strike at the heart of the commitments to reproductive health and rights made by the Government at the ICPD at Cairo in 1994.

All of these states, in enunciating their population policies, also advocate a mind-boggling host of incentives and disincentives: restricting schooling in government schools to two children; restricting employment in public services to those with two children; linking financial assistance to PRIs for development activities and anti-poverty programmes with performance in family planning; linking assessment of public health staff to performance in family planning and so forth. Indeed, service rules for government employees have been altered in several states making a two-child norm mandatory.

Perhaps not coincidentally, many of these policy prescriptions were also contained in an influential 1993 World Bank document. This recommends, ICPD notwithstanding, that “targets based on micro-level planning be…continued”; “an innovative package of incentives/disincentives … be linked to various benefits being made available under different plans of the government”; “ a suitable plan of disincentives…for government employees…and the organized sector” (World Bank 1993: 50-51). Given the reach and influence of the World Bank in India’s policies, it is not surprising that state governments drafting their state population policies carried these policy prescriptions.

In view of these developments, health and women’s groups approached the National Human Rights Commission in 2002 with a memorandum that the two-child norm was discriminatory, anti-democratic and violative of commitments made by the Government of India in several international covenants.

The NHRC, then headed by Justice J.S. Verma, issued orders to the concerned State governments, and, at a National Colloquium on the 9th and 10th of January 2003, attended by representatives of these State governments, a Declaration was issued.

This NHRC Declaration notes “with concern that population policies framed by some State Governments reflect in certain respects a coercive approach through use of incentives and disincentives, which in some cases are violative of human rights. This is not consistent with the spirit of the National Population Policy. The violation of human rights affects, in particular the marginalized and vulnerable sections of society, including women (NHRC 2003:1)”.

The Declaration also noted, “further that the propagation of a two-child norm and coercion or manipulation of individual fertility decisions through the use of incentives and disincentives violate the principle of voluntary informed choice and the human rights of the people, particularly the rights of the child (Ibid).”

But the NHRC Declaration, as much as the concerns of health groups and women’s groups, apparently fell on deaf ears, as the Supreme Court ruling has come in for widespread middle-class approbation.

Indeed, the Supreme Court ruling perhaps renders redundant some of the private members bills in Parliament that have been tabled to variously increase incentives or disincentives.

Two of them, one named the Population Stabilisation Bill 1999 (Lok Sabha Secretariat 1999), and the other, the Population Control Bill 2000 (Lok Sabha Secretariat 2000), for instance, moot the idea of a one-child norm along with a number of incentives and disincentives, including disqualification of persons with more than one child from contesting elections.

Yet another bill, the Bachelor’s Allowance Bill 2000 (Lok Sabha Secretariat 2000), suggests incentives to those men who remain bachelors.

Men, who, taking advantage of the incentives, subsequently get married, are to be fined and imprisoned. The Health Ministry made a note on this bill that we cannot implement this since we do not have adequate space in prisons.

Yet another bill, the Population Control Bill 2000 (Lok Sabha Secretariat 2000), also seeks to punish people who violate the small family norm with rigorous imprisonment for a term of five years and a fine, not less than Rs.50,000.

The Population Control and Family Welfare Bill, 1999, proposes in addition to incentives and disincentives, the compulsory sterilization of every married couple having two or more living children (Lok Sabha Secretariat 1999).

These efforts at prescribing a two-child norm seem to be found also in unlikely quarters: the Tamil Nadu agricultural labourers’ insurance bill, for instance, stipulates that labourers losing their limbs can only receive insurance compensation if they have no more than two children.

The Maharashtra government – the most punitive state in population policy for a long time - passed a law for differential irrigation fees; farmers with more than two children would be required to pay more for irrigation facilities (The Hindu 2005).

More creatively, the U.P. government announced a scheme whereby applicants for gun licences had to produce certificates that they had motivated five cases for sterilization ( Sharma 2004).

A delegation from the Indian Medical Association has urged the government to, following China, implement a One Child Norm (Kurup 2005).

In yet another move, recalling the days of the Emergency, in Rajasthan, school teachers have been given sterilization targets to achieve. And the Election Commission of the state of Uttar Pradesh has suggested a two-child norm for contestants to all elective posts (The Hindu 2005).

Not to be left behind, the Government of India, led by the BJP, announced in April 2003 its plans to introduce in the Lok Sabha the Constitutional (79thAmendment) Bill seeking to restrict persons with more than two children from contesting elections (Hindustan Times 2003).

This Bill, introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 1992, by the Congress, would first have to pass the lower house. The Health Minister, Sushma Swaraj, speaking in the Lok Sabha, announced that should there be consensus on the Bill, the government was prepared to introduce it in the then ongoing session of Parliament. Fortunately elections intervened.

In the years of the UPA government, occasional meetings of the National Population Commission were held, and when I brought up the Two-Child Norm, both the then Prime Minister,Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi agreed with me. Singh said “ As a liberal, I am opposed to punitive policies”. But Mr.Sharad Pawar responded with a lie “ Sir, This is a State subject. Let the Centre not dictate on this”.

The problem with these punitive approaches is both fundamental and pragmatic. Fundamentally, it represents a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between population and development. States that have successfully achieved demographic transition have done so by investing in social welfare programmes, not by manipulating fertility. In other words, population is the dependent variable, not the other way around.

Pragmatically, they are demographically unnecessary, and indeed counterproductive, as I explain below. I would also argue that they are morally compromised since they violate the principle of natural justice, creating two sets of citizenship rights on the basis of fertility. Indeed, such policies represent going back to the days before universal suffrage when property rights decided citizenship claims.

What proponents of the two-child norm or disincentives ignore is that there is a substantial demographic transition underway in the country. Replacement level, or close to replacement level fertility, has been reached in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab. It is true that the TFR is high in U.P., Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but even in these states the TFR has declined from 3.8 to 2.74 in UP, from 4 to 3.14 in Bihar, from 3.1. To 2.32 in M.P., from 3.2 to 2.4 in Rajasthan and from 2.4 to 2.2 in Assam between NFHS 3(2006) and NFHS 4 (2016).

In other words, a substantial and sustained fertility decline is underway in the country. Hastening this, however, requires investments in the social sectors – food, health, education, employment, old age pensions and security and so on – precisely measures that are being undermined by neo-liberal economic policies.

Once demographic transition commences and birth rates begin a secular decline, it is near impossible to reverse it, as China and Russia have discovered: incentives to increase the birth rates in these countries have not worked.

If unwanted births could be reduced in India, the TFR would drop to the replacement level of fertility. It is estimated that the unmet need for family planning services contributes 24.4 percent to current population growth. Indeed, this is acknowledged in the NPP, which therefore marks as its priority, meeting the unmet need for health and family planning services (GOI 2000).

What is also important to acknowledge is that given the age structure of the population, population growth will continue despite a fall in the birth rate due to what demographers call momentum, i.e. the effect of a young age structure caused by high population growth rates in the recent past.

With a large proportion of the population - almost 60 per cent - below the age of 30 years, further growth of population is inevitable, unless of course mortality increases, which cannot be the aim of policy. Population momentum contributes to as much as 69.7 percent of current population growth (Sen and Iyer 2002).

A study carried out in five states ( A.P., Haryana, Orissa, Rajasthan and M.P.) indicated that the fall out of the imposition of the two-child norm on PRIs had been exactly as anticipated.

The largest number of cases of disqualification from contesting elections was with reference to this law. Women formed 41 per cent of those disqualified; the dalits, adivasis and the OBCs formed an overwhelming 80 per cent of those disqualified. What it did find was evidence of desertion of wives, denial of paternity, neglect of female infants, non-registration of births, non-immunisation of daughters to avoid registration.

Equally significantly, there was evidence of forced abortions and pre-birth elimination of females, or sex selective abortions (Buch 2005). Another study in five districts of Madhya Pradesh confirms these findings (Sama 2005).

Thus the policies have profound anti female consequences. What has not been adequately studied, is what the Covid 19 pandemic has meant for access to reproductive health services, including abortion services, already inadequate.

Given the lack of data, we can only speculate that access to abortion services would have declined.

Women’s groups in India, in an open letter to the President, opposing the UP Government policies point out: “ It is to be reminded that during the COVID-19 related lockdown in India (March to May 2020)-1.85 million Indian women could not terminate an unwanted pregnancy; out of which 80% or 1.5 million compromised abortions were due to the lack of availability of medical abortion drugs at pharmacy stores. The gap in abortion services will further lead to violence and abandonment of women, children, and vulnerable persons ( Memorandum 2021).”

That the intent of these policies is to further demonise Muslims is beyond doubt, weaponizing demography, accusing the community of waging demographic war to take over India.

The Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma let the cat out of the bag when he declared that the two-child policy is the only way to eradicate poverty and illiteracy in the Muslim community. Perhaps he should try policies of social justice instead?

That it seems to be chillingly working is evidenced by the comments on the website of the UP Bill. Almost all commentators, Hindus, want the right of voting to be rescinded for those with more than two children. They do not of course know that as per NFHS data, 83 percent of parents with more than two children are Hindus, perhaps of a lesser breed (NFHS -4).

The “Muslim rate of population growth” is also a red herring. Hindus in UP and Bihar have higher birth rates than Muslims in Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Bangladesh has reached below replacement level fertility. The TFR in Kashmir was 1.4 in 2016. More significantly the TFR among Hindus was 3.1 in the 2001 Census, declining to 2.1 in the 2011 Census. The corresponding figures for Muslims were 4.1 and 2.7.

The absolute decline was 1 among Hindus and 1.4 among Muslims. That is to say, while Muslim TFR is marginally higher, it has reached replacement levels in large parts of the country, with the rate of decline being faster among Muslims than among Hindus.

But where issues of population are concerned, long years of being exposed to neo-Malthusian ideology has robbed people of the ability not just looking at facts rationally, but also compassion for the poor and deprived. Iron seems to have entered the souls of most middle class people and our elites, including our politicians and policy makers. This too congeals now with Hindutva which has a long history of saffronising demography. Women, and the poor, will pay the price for this disproportionately.

Dr. Mohan Rao was formerly a Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.He has written extensively on health and population policy.

Poverty in India: Facts and Figures on the Daily Struggle for Survival