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Are people a problem?

KALPANA SHARMA

AP

Population control ... it's about being humane, just and gender sensitive.

CHINA said one child is enough. India insisted that two was OK. China is still the most populous country. India is number two; it is likely to displace China before long. China has successfully "controlled" its population, by fair means and foul. India has not, by fair means or foul. So does this mean India should follow China's example? After all, what is the harm in a small infringement of democratic rights here and there so long as the ultimate goal of "population stabilisation" is achieved?

The issue here is not just a difference in the systems of governance between India and China. It is also about understanding the real nature of this so-called "problem" and what is a humane, just and gender-sensitive "solution".

Sadly, despite experience and evidence to the contrary, the concept of a "population explosion" refuses to disappear. It keeps bobbing up even as you think you have dealt it a strong enough blow so that it will not raise its head again. For more years than one cares to remember, women's groups, health activists and those who compile the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report have been arguing that if you educate girls, make primary education universal, enhance access to reproductive health and general health care, fertility rates will decline. They have facts and figures to support this proposition. They can show you countries or parts of countries, including some States in India, where this has happened.

But either no one has heard this, or they have not understood this approach. Or they don't want to understand it. How else can one explain the resurgence of arguments urging the government to "control" India's growing population, to be "firm", to do something before we are ruined? You hear this on television talk shows, you read it in the newspapers, you hear it in well-appointed homes. But the discussions continue to be ill-informed about larger realities of development and economics; they persist in being an "us" versus "them" debate, the "people like us" being the better-off and the "people like them" being the poor. So it is the "poor" who must be controlled, who must be told how many children to have, etc while the educated, the better-off already know and need no such instruction. Once again, there are two classes of citizens, those that are permitted democratic rights and those that are not. And all this in the name of "population control".

The renewed population debate has been triggered by the recent Supreme Court judgment on the Haryana Government's two-child norm for office-bearers at the panchayat level. The court held that the State Government was not violating "any fundamental right nor does it cross the limits of reasonability. Rather, it is a disqualification conceptually devised in the national interest".

What's wrong with that, ask "people like us". Surely it is "in the national interest" to find ways to limit population growth. Surely elected representatives must set an example. Sure, sure. But should not elected representatives at all levels set an example on all scores — on honesty, on transparency in governance, on lack of prejudice towards any caste, creed or class? Can you disqualify elected representatives if they fail to meet these standards? Why do we not envisage laws to recall those who fall short on these standards instead of penalising them on the number of children they have? Also, if our elected representatives stick to the two-child norm but continue to steal, cheat, fool people, spout prejudicial and hate-filled language from public platforms — will that help? Can such people be role models just by virtue of limiting the size of their families?

Interestingly, the law only applies to people at the panchayat level. And the ones who will pay the price of such laws are women who have little control over their fertility when they are part of the "them" people. Yet, the one-third reservation of seats in panchayats for women has permitted many such women to play a role in decision-making, to find a sense of self-worth, to win the respect of their communities by their quality of leadership.

But sometimes even these women have a hard time dealing with the personal, with the unequal relationships within their marital homes that rob them of the independence to make choices about how many children to have and when. So should such women, who have altered the quality of governance in many rural areas, be punished and denied their rights?

It would make more sense for a State like Haryana, if it is really serious about limiting population growth, to look at the impact of the mid-day meal scheme in neighbouring Rajasthan. Here, thanks to the Government abiding by the Supreme Court's direction that a cooked mid-day meal be supplied to all children in primary school, attendance and enrolment in schools has risen noticeably. More importantly, girls are now being sent to school. Their chances of survival will be greater if they get a good nutritious meal at least once a day. With education and better health, these girls could grow up into women who can make informed choices about the size of their family provided their access to education is accompanied by enhanced general health care, reproductive health choices and sustainable livelihood.

In the short run, there will be more people in the world, and in India. But in the long run, this can change, if we value every child enough to ensure that she survives at birth and through the first five years, can go to school, can get clean drinking water and sanitation, can find food, shelter and work, and can live in a society that does not discriminate against her by virtue of class, caste, creed or gender. An impossible dream? Perhaps. But certainly one that is worth holding on to instead of falling into the trap of accepting instant, unworkable and undemocratic policies — like the two-child norm.

E-mail the writer at ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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