The two-child policy announced by the state government of Uttar Pradesh likely has little to do with population control and more with political survival.
The state government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state by population, announced on 11 July, World Population Day, that it wanted to introduce a two-child policy in order to promote sustainable development and equity. The state’s Law Commission unveiled the draft Bill, titled “Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021”, and asked the public for its input by 19 July. Uttar Pradesh’s population stands at around 240 million people which, if it were a country, would make it the world’s fifth-largest, behind China, India itself, the United States and Indonesia.
According to a UN report, World Population Prospects 2019, India is expected to overtake China as the country with the world’s largest population by 2027. UNICEF records that 16 per cent of the world’s total births, or 67,385 babies, are born in India every day, with one of those infants dying every minute. It also notes that India is the only large country in the world where more girl babies die than boy babies. The gender differential in child survival is 11 per cent. Those figures continue as the babies grow. Under-five mortality for girls in India is 8.3 per cent higher than for boys; the difference is 14 per cent higher for boys globally.
Those statistics by themselves would appear to indicate that some restrictions on the number of births is warranted. The solution is not that straightforward, however.
The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath (originally Ajay Mohan Bisht), is a controversial figure in Indian politics. Praised and supported by Prime Minister Modi, he is equally derided by his critics. Consequently, while Mr Modi commended his “unprecedented” performance in stemming the rate of transmission of the Coronavirus during the Covid-19 pandemic in Uttar Pradesh, the state Opposition has called it “election propaganda” to divert people’s attention from failures on various fronts ahead of assembly elections next year. There is some justification for that claim. At the peak of the second Covid-19 wave that struck India, the High Court in the state’s judicial capital, Allahabad, described the deaths of Covid-19 patients because of a lack of oxygen in hospitals as a “criminal act” and “[nothing] less than genocide”.
One opposition Minister cast his argument in rather simplistic terms, asking, ‘A lot of births are taking place in China and you [India] are stopping people from having children. A time will come when we will be very few. If there is a war, then from where will you bring people to fight?’ An Indian National Congress leader, playing to, as Churchill might have described them, a virtue-ridden audience, said, ‘Before making the law, government should tell how many legitimate and illegitimate children its ministers have.’ The president of the fervently-Hindu Vishwa Hindu Parishad asked the Law Commission not to offer incentives to the state’s citizens because doing so could change the state’s demographics. He cited the cases of the states of Assam and Kerala where, allegedly, Muslim population growth rates have surpassed the Hindu birth rates.
Demonstrating an uncharacteristic focus, however, Mr Adityanath refused to be put off by the criticism, tweeting:
Increasing population is the root of major problems including inequality prevailing in the society. Population control is the primary condition for the establishment of an advanced society. Let us on World Population Day take a pledge to make ourselves and the society aware of the problems arising from the increasing population. [Hindi].
The Uttar Pradesh Minister for Health added helpfully, ‘If we implement the new population policy, then according to the estimates, the population of our state will stabilise by 2052.’
Amid the Opposition’s claims and the government’s seeming indifference to them, a few telling statistics have been ignored. While, in 1955, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR, or the number of children borne over their lifetime) for Indian women was 5.9, that figure fell to around 2.18 earlier this year, 2.1 being the accepted “replacement” rate. That rate is expected to fall to around 1.93 by 2025. Interestingly, the TFR fell from 4.1 in the 1998-99 financial year to 2.7 in 2015-16. The TFR has declined across India, albeit more so in urban areas. According to the National Family Healthy Survey of 2016, the TFR for Uttar Pradesh was 2.1 in urban areas and 3.0 in rural locations. Both are significant reductions from the figures of 1999, however. On a side note, the president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has reason to worry; the TFR for Muslims in 2016 was 3.1 compared to the Hindu 2.7.
As a previous FDI paper noted, China’s one-child policy has backfired badly on it. Given India’s overall declining TFR, Mr Adityanath may be well-advised to leave good enough alone and allow that trend to continue in his state and India in general if a smaller population is what he desires. India does not need to face the kind of situation China does. It is difficult to believe that the Chief Minister of a state is unaware of those developments and statistics. Given that and his persistence in pushing the Bill through the state Legislature, one can only surmise that the Opposition are correct in their assessment that this Bill is no more than a distraction.