Nasbandi, Notebandi, aur Nationalism
Last month, India’s Union Minister of State for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises and senior BJP leader Giriraj Singh chose to pontificate on the need for reproductive sterilisation in the Indian Union using the Hindi term “nasbandi”, thus bringing back memories of the draconian sterilisation initiatives during the emergency regime of Indira Gandhi. He used the term Hindi term “nasbandi” for rhyming effect with “notebandi”, Hindi for demonetisation. In fact, he said as such – that demonetisation had to be followed up with sterilisation. In making his point, he evoked the idea of the “country”. He also said that all sections of society should adopt the practice of sterilisation. To be fair, he did not speak of forced sterilisation. He marked out “population explosion” as a problem and laid out his prescription to solve it. While he is free to suggest solutions, however outlandish, to a “population explosion” problem in the “country”, there is another issue. There is a population explosion problem in the country only if - by country - he means his homeland, Bihar. The Indian Union does not have a “population explosion” problem. Let me explain.
It is fashionable in Delhi’s power circles to characterise this or that as a “national” problem. The Indian Union is a federal Union of incredibly diverse and different ethnolinguistic nationalities, whose achievements and failings differ. Thus, all such cases of “national problem” need to be analysed carefully because, more often than not, characterisation of something as a “national problem” by such influential people from the Delhi power circuit leads to “national” policies to provide “national” solutions. And that affects a huge number of peoples who people like Giriraj Singh don’t have in mind when he evokes the “national” concern. This is probably because his idea of his “nation” stems from his backyard that may be his “nation” but not everybody else’s. So let’s look at his so-called “national problem” of population explosion.
Total fertility rate (TFR) is a good measure of future population growth trends. TFR is defined as “the number of children who would be born per woman (or per 1,000 women) if she/they were to pass through the childbearing years bearing children according to a current schedule of age-specific fertility rates”. A TFR less than 2.1 is considered to be a below replacement rate, which means when TFR falls below that number, and that is sustained, in future, the population decreases. In areas with very high mortality, the replacement TFR rate can be somewhat higher. West Bengal’s Total Fertility rate is 1.64, which is among the lowest in the world - same as Netherlands, Canada, and Denmark. The Dravidian homelands do not have a problem. Tamil Nadu and Kerala are similar to West Bengal at around 1.7. Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana, since post state division, data is not still available), Karnataka and Maharashtra are around 1.8, comparable to Belgium, Finland, and Norway. All of these are better than USA and UK. Thus, these states and most others, which comprise the whole of the Deccan peninsula and the East, do not have a “population explosion” and so do not have the “national problem”. If anything, they have the opposite problem – of having TFR below replacement level.
However, Giriraj Singh claimed that the Indian Union “adds population equal to Australia every year.” That is also true but only partially. Some do, and they add so much that it reverses the first world level TFRs of the states mentioned above when the Indian Union as a whole is considered, which has a TFR of 2.34. So who is doing this adding? Only six states in the Indian Union have Total Fertility rates more than 2.34. They are - Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar. All of them have Hindi as the primary official language. I mention that because the language ties them into a cultural sphere that is the source of the so-called “national problem”. Thus, Giriraj Singh’s “national” problem is a Hindi-belt problem. Hence, if solutions are to be sought, they are to be found by breaking it down into these political-cultural units and then identify what exactly about them is problematic. And that is where it gets tricky.
This Hindi-belt population growth is a drag on the meagre resources of the economy, whose revenues are disproportionately generated by states that do not have a population problem. Moreover, when Hindi belt problems arise, what Delhi does is a massive transfer of funds from non-Hindi states to Hindi states to solve a Hindi national problem. It is also useful to see why this issue becomes a “national problem” to BJP leader Giriraj Singh. The six problem states contributed to 60 per cent of the seats won the BJP in 2014 while seat-wise, all the seats in these states (not only those won by the BJP) make-up less than 37 per cent of the total number of Lok Sabha seats. This means that the problem states have an undue hold on the composition of the Union legislature. Hence, it is not unnatural that this disproportionate hold on the Union government leads its functionaries to use the “idea of India” and “nation” to falsely generalise the problems and then devise ways for the non-problem states to pick up the bill when it comes to paying for the solution to such problems.
There is another aspect to this. Since no internal migration controls exist between the states of the Indian Union, the economic and social gains that come with a low TFR are denied to the low TFR states. The high TFR states thus send across people to low TFR states, thus burdening low TFR states with the problem of high TFR states that Giriraj mischaracterised as “national”. In fact, such is the scale of the problem that among the top 10 linguistic groups in the Indian Union, only Hindi-speaking population’s percentage as a proportion of the total population of the Indian Union has increased every decade for the last 5 decades. Apart from the economic costs, this aspect along with uncontrolled migration has grave consequences for the distinct socio-cultural fabric of almost all non-Hindi states. It is a problem that does not speak its name due to political correctness but now is so acute that someone as close to BJP as NDA partner Telugu Desam’s supremo and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu has highlighted the TFR differences as a huge source of the problem.
However, Giriraj Singh’s apparently sudden observations on “population explosion” have a more sinister dog-whistle element. Because, just two months before voicing his concerns about “population explosion”, the same Giriraj Singh suggested that Hindus should increase their population by producing more children! Thus, what he had in mind was a Muslim population growth issue that he chose to couch in terms of a “national problem”. However, Giriraj Singh perhaps doesn’t know due to the Hindi-belt-centric view of his “nation” that Muslim population growth rates in most non-Hindi states are lower than the Hindu population growth rates of the six main Hindi belt states. Thus, if we combine his October prescription and his December concern with actual population growth trends, the only population explosion that might please Giriraj Singh is that Hindi-speaking Hindus, given that group also happens to be the BJP’s primary support base.
The false generalisation of Hindi belt problems as “national” problems goes beyond this specific episode. Take the example of Indo-Pak rivalry. It is not uniformly popular. There are anti-Pak Hindi films, but no one has heard of an anti-Pak Bhojpuri or Bangla film. There simply is no market. More often than not, looking at things always from an Indian Union-wide perspective often hides more than it reveals about the question at hand. This was also evident during the recent New Year molestation cases in Bengaluru and Delhi. Following those unfortunate events, media was abuzz with the talk about the behaviour of “Indian” men in urban centres. Delhi is so much off the charts compared to the other main metros (which happen to be non-Hindi majority) when it comes rate of reported rape, stalking, child rape, abduction, workplace sexual harassment and much more, that a characterisation of the men in Kolkata or Chennai (both cities whose reported rape rates are more than 20 times lesser than Delhi!) in light of the behavior of men in Delhi is doing them a huge disservice in front of the world. Yes, rapes occur everywhere, and one rape is a rape too many. And rape is a common global problem and so is patriarchy, but attitudes differ and so do the consequences due to those differences. Delhi with a reported rape rate that is 47 times greater than the rate of Kolkata and 9 times higher than the rate in Bengaluru do not share the same set of problems. This is because rates matter. Because it means that a woman in Delhi is 47 times more likely, get raped than a woman in Kolkata. And hence, it is more useful to talk about Delhi’s men separately from Kolkata or Chennai’s men. Because if we mischaracterise the problem under the garb of the practically meaningless term, “Indian men” that puts Haryana and Mizoram in one basket, we will end up advocating a similar set of solutions for men who rape at a rate 47 times higher. One needs to relook the idea of the “national” needs in the face of the real differences in the real world. Decentralised policy making which in turn means state specific policy making can lead to the maximum benefits out of policy interventions.
However, from the tendencies of the present Union government through its imposition of uniform policies via Delhi-based technocratic bodies like NITI Ayog, it is clear that in its pursuit of the “national”, it has anything but real people and their real differences in mind. This has to be rationally countered by pointing to the diverse realities and trajectories of the various states of the Indian Union. So, next time someone tells you about something national, ask him or her to break it down to the level of states and then make your conclusions.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)