The government of Uttar Pradesh claims the two-child proposal will "empower" women, but population experts say the burden of such "coercive" measures will fall disproportionately on women. Photo: Anantha Krishnan/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
The government of Uttar Pradesh in India wants to implement a two-child policy and voluntary sterilisation programme to ensure there is a “population balance among various communities.” The northern Indian state is one of the world’s most populous regions, with a population density that is double the national average. It is home to over 220 million – larger than the populations of most African, European and South American countries.
Critics say the policy is coercive towards women and targets minority communities.The proposed policy suggests penalising large families by making them ineligible for running in local elections, barring access to state government jobs, promotions, and government benefit schemes. Incentives for “voluntary sterilisation” range from tax rebates and extra pay for government jobs, to subsidies on buying a house or land. People working for the government get even more pay benefits if they only have one child, and free healthcare and education for the child until age 20. There is even a one-time cash incentive of INR 80,000 ($1,066) if the single child is a boy, and INR 100,000 ($1,333) if it’s a girl. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, told Indian media that there should be an “adequate gap” between the two births, too, if a family wants a second child. “The new population policy is not only concerned with stabilising population growth, but also providing a path to prosperity for every citizen,” he said while introducing the measures, adding that bringing down the fertility rate will “empower” women to make informed personal choices. The Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill 2021 was open to suggestions from the public until today. The bill is not without its opponents. Experts call the policy “coercive,” much on the lines of how China’s one-child policy played out, especially for its women.
“Every time there is population control, it has led to violence against women’s bodies,” feminist activist Kavitha Krishnan told VICE World News. In the 1970s, the government at the time under the Indian National Congress started a mass sterilisation campaign that had taken a “gruesome” turn when millions were forcibly sterilised. Even now, news outlets consistently report on deaths of women in government-run sterilisation camps. “Population control measures can lead to a spike in sex-selective practices and unsafe abortions given the strong son-preference in India, as it has been witnessed in a few states in the past,” Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the nonprofit Population Foundation of India told VICE World News“China is a prime example of the proven inefficacy of coercive policies, and [it] exemplifies that India must not adopt [them],” added Muttreja. China ditched the one-child policy in 2015 for a two-child policy. In May 2021, Beijing announced that couples could have up to three children. “Today, China faces a crisis of shortage of young, working people, which will have a deep influence on its economy,” said Muttreja.
For Krishnan, who is the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, the policy’s proposal to control women’s right to run for public office or receive government benefits is “undemocratic.”
“How many women in India have the autonomy to decide how many children she has?” she said. There is enough documentation of women facing violence – even death – because of pressure from their families to produce or abort children. India already has a skewed sex ratio that is unfavourable to women. Muttreja said Indian women continue to bear the ”disproportionate” burden of contraception and family planning measures that rely on female sterilisation. “To date, there continues to be widespread aversion to vasectomy, very low condom use, and lack of male responsibility in family planning,” she said. Shashi Tharoor, an opposition leader from the Indian National Congress, alleged that the proposed policy is a “thinly-concealed motivation” to target a “particular community.” “Their motive is purely political and communal,” he said, as quoted by The Indian Express.
The measures also appear to ride on anxieties surrounding India’s purported population explosion, which experts have flagged as false. The purported concern about a population explosion is “not substantiated by national or global data,” Muttreja said. “There is [also] no evidence that there is a population explosion in either India or Uttar Pradesh.”
In fact, India is “on course” to achieve population stabilisation. “According to available data, India has already started experiencing a slowing-down in population growth and a decline in fertility rate,” she added, citing the Indian Census population data from 2001 to 2011. The proposed sterilisation campaign also has Islamophobic undertones. Muslims make up 14 percent of India’s total population of 1.3 billion and in Uttar Pradesh they make up close to 19 percent of the population. Various Hindu nationalist-leaning groups have alleged, often based on unfounded data and conspiracy theories, that Muslims are causing a population problem. At least seven other Indian states already have population control provisions similar to those proposed by the Uttar Pradesh government. Instead of enforcing a two-child policy, Muttreja said the state can instead take lessons from countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which brought down their fertility rates by increasing available birth control choices and investing in women’s education. “[States like] Uttar Pradesh could do well to learn from them, thereby ensuring that all children are wanted,” she said.Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.