PM Narendra Modi’s mention of population control in his Independence-day speech this year has sparked off fierce debates.
Southern states, which are seeing a negative growth rate, have lashed out at their northern counterparts for adding to the ever-increasing number. They feel their voices will be drowned if this skew gets worse.
Dalits and Muslims, mostly with high fertility rates, feel slighted. They think this is a ploy to move towards a Hindu Rashtra by the BJP government.
And, then there are certain experts, who feel reducing fertility rates coupled with population control measures will lead to an outsize proportion of aged, unproductive people in the distant future.
While the southern states have a genuine reason to feel disgruntled, those connecting it with the Hindu Rashtra dreams or a future undesirable population mix couldn’t be further from the truth.
Currently at 1.37 billion, and set to overtake China by 2027, there is not the slightest reason to think otherwise.
Basic common sense will tell you that the one thing going against the nation, well endowed with land and natural resources, is its population.
Millions still do not have access to clean water, proper meals, healthcare and education, thanks to the unmanageable number. For the same reason, we are finding it tough to stamp out poverty, offer jobs to everyone (if anything, unemployment stands a 45-year high) and wean away a large proportion of subsistence farmers from agriculture.
On a much larger scale, this is impacting the economy and environment negatively.
And just in case you’re worried about the nation running out of human resources, here’s a reality check – with the slower rate of population growth that we are now witnessing, India still will have a stable proportion of working population aged between 15 and 60 in 2045.
Something needs to be done and done immediately to check our population. If not, living conditions will deteriorate further in both cities and rural pockets as we drain our existing resources.
Will laws help?
Very recently, in July, Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha, tabled “The Population Regulation Bill.” It proposes tax rebates, free healthcare and subsidies for those choosing to have not more than two children. It also proposes punitive measures against those having more than two children. Those include reduced access to food and non-food subsidies, higher interest rates on loans and lower interest rates on savings. Further, it proposes debarring such people from contesting elections.
If it becomes a law, will it yield results?
The answer is not that simple.
India is no stranger to harsh punitive measures to control population. The forced mass sterilization during the emergency from 1975 to 77 resulted in almost 8 million men, mostly from poor backgrounds, being sterilized. Despite the hue and cry against it, forced sterilizations violating all standard operating procedures, mostly of women, have often happened.
Thus, laws to stem population growth, mostly affect the poor and the marginalized, especially women. Being child-bearers the onus of birth control is on them.
Less strong measures, akin to the ones proposed in the “The Population Control Bill” may also miss the mark. This is because of the lack of extensive awareness drives in the rural hinterlands and unavailability of proper healthcare and contraceptive measures.
The best way out is to focus on bringing about development by providing education and healthcare facilities in the remotest villages and urban slums. Empowering women through education and employment is even more important. This gives them the crucial decision-making power when it comes to family planning.
And with small families, overall standard of living will improve for the entire nation. Modi was spot on when he said in his I-day speech, “I want you to do proper family planning and you will naturally see that a smaller family can be happier and more content. Your family will be away from diseases, will have more resources.”
Seriously, what could possibly be wrong with such a simple, logical explanation or for that matter a statement such as “keeping families small is a sign of patriotism.”
Overpopulation is a huge problem that India is grappling with for long. Political compulsions and vote bank politics have so far deterred our Prime Ministers from taking up the issue. It’s a good sign now we have one who has the courage to change the narrative. So, instead of censuring, its time to be supportive.