By upholding the two-child norm among members of Haryana’s local bodies, the Supreme Court is conveying an urgent message by creating exemplars
India sadly lacks exemplars in public office. By upholding a law in Haryana that debars people with more than two children from entering panchayats and zilla parishads, the Supreme Court has attempted to create exactly that, in spite of petitions against the decision. The court has rejected the argument based on fundamental rights, since contesting an election is not a fundamental right. Instead, disqualification on the ground proposed had been devised in the national interest. Given the present population of India and the total fertility rate, it is estimated that India’s population will be around 1.62 billion in 2050, that is, 250 million people more than the number of people in China the same year. The Supreme Court’s judgment follows in the main the “replacement level” of 2.1 children per couple by 2010, worked out by the national population policy 2000. Compelling people in public office to set an example may be one way of getting a very urgent message across.
The history of family planning programmes in India has not been a happy one, and the suspicion bred by the incentive-centred schemes during the Emergency has never been fully dissipated. The NPP, following the Cairo declaration’s principle of a human-centred approach to population issues, had articulated the need for a target-free, humane policy, shorn of incentives, disincentives, and penalties for people with more than two children. The difficulties of reaching the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple in this way are obvious. There can be no simple solution to the population problem in a country as vast in size and unequal in income and education as India. For example, the TFR in the northern states is markedly higher than that in the southern states, where the TFR is declining. This would threaten to change the composition of the national population. Besides, the TFR is higher among women from underprivileged sections. All disincentives, such as, no government help in food from the public distribution system, no education subsidy, and no government recruitment for the third child that some states have proposed, in effect punish an already deprived section further. Barring entry of women with more than two children into local government bodies actually punishes the victim, for very few women decide how many children they will have. Most frighteningly, imposing a two-child norm raises the risks of female foeticide and infanticide, among the chief reasons for the skewed sex ratio in certain states.
Harsh population policies by Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra are being questioned, and some of these states have had to withdraw or modify their programmes. Yet a way has to be found. Comparisons with China’s one-child norm are not of much use, because what really need to be compared are per capita incomes, and achievements in health and education. This is the crux, after all. No policy, however humane and nuanced, will work without basic improvements in education, health and employment opportunities. From that point of view, setting up exemplars is a positive step. But it must also be seen as just. If only the same prohibition is made to apply to members of parliament and legislative assemblies, the law would begin to make sense. It is to be hoped that this is a step the Centre will now take.