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Necessary evil

To ensure the rise of India as a potential superpower, the Modi government must dip into the controversial subject of population control

Necessary evil

Will there be a move to contain India's population explosion? After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort that "keeping one's family small is an act of patriotism" hinting at some measures to contain the population, there were expectations that a bill might be introduced in this regard in the upcoming budget session. Addressing the issue for the first time, Modi expressed concern over the steep rise in India's population and said the Centre and states should look at measures to deal with it."The time has now come that we should take such challenges head-on," he announced from the Red Fort. Currently, India is at 1.37 billion and will overtake China by 2027. Millions still do not have access to clean water, proper meals, healthcare and education, thanks to the unmanageable number and more mouths means more strain on the resources.

However, now that there are pan-national protests against the CAA-NRC package, it is doubtful whether the Prime Minister would open one more front. Just as the CAA and NRC are perceived to be targeting the Muslims in the country, this too will be seen as an attempt to target the Muslims. In any case, the 'P-word' is a very sensitive subject and no politician wants to touch it after the forced sterilisation drives during the Emergency. It became an election issue and Indira Gandhi lost that election. The Union health ministry even changed the name of the Family Planning Department to Family Welfare Department. Moreover, when even China, known for its rigid family planning programmes, has opted for an overhaul of its earlier one-child norm, why should India be pushing for family planning programmes?

Besides, the Economic Survey 2018-2019 says "India is set to witness a sharp slowdown in population growth in the next two decades. Population in the 0-19 age bracket has already peaked due to a sharp decline in total fertility rates (TFR) across the country." Nine states have already reached the replacement rate of 2.1 or below. All of India will have reached a TFR of 2.1 or below by 2021. Almost all major states, including even populous ones like Haryana and Bihar, are said to have experienced a significant deceleration in population growth. High fertility rates persist in 72 districts, a little over 11 per cent of the country's 621 districts. Although India's population continues to grow, the pace of net addition is decreasing.

The southern states have a genuine concern as they have sought a negative growth and are consequently at a disadvantage while the delimitation takes place or when the Finance Commission allocates resources, one of the criteria is on the basis of population. The five southern states even held a conclave to project their problem, so, special incentives should be given to the states that adopt a negative growth target.

Those who are against any harsh measures to contain population argue that the one billion-plus population would yield a demographic dividend. For poor families, more hands mean more income. Also, it has brought in higher per capita entitlements. Secondly, the migration from the northern and the eastern states has helped maintain growth in the south and the west where fertility rates are low.

However, Rakesh Sinha, a nominated Rajya Sabha member, has tabled a private member's bill called the Population Regulation Bill 2019, in the budget session, which he hopes might be taken up in the upcoming budget session. The bill advocates penalties ranging from denial of financial benefits to ineligibility for elected offices and discontinuation of food subsidy and other such things. There are also incentives for those who undergo sterilisation after having two children. The financial memorandum of the bill estimates Rs 10 crore as an annual recurring expenditure. Last year, 125 Parliamentarians submitted a petition to the President to implement a two-child norm. If the bill gets support, then the government could adopt it with some amendments. However, while the BJP might support the bill hoping it will consolidate the Hindu votes, the secular parties would not go along because of their vote bank politics, as they believe the measure is to target the Muslims. But in view of the brute majority in Lok Sabha, this measure could be pushed through.

Containing the population explosion is imperative and every citizen has a stake in it. It is not enough just to provide contraceptives to women to enhance demographic transition; it should be accompanied by awareness, availability of food, employment and healthcare. 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 that Modi is willing to change the narrative. He should not only mobilise the support from other political parties but also from the chief ministers. If India wants to be a superpower, then addressing the population explosion is imperative.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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