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A NEW EMERGENCY
- Increasing the burden of the already vulnerable

Remember the Emergency' Not just the arrests, or “the trains running on time”, but the sterilization and vasectomy targets, the use of brute force, the reduction of people from citizens with rights to cattle that must breed less' If we thought the “family planning” fiasco of the Emergency was a grim but receding memory, we obviously thought wrong. A recent report on the Andhra Pradesh state population policy (The Hindu, July 27, 2003), described how a Dalit sarpanch in a village has been disqualified from contesting panchayati raj elections because he has more than two children. The sarpanch’s case is in the Andhra Pradesh high court. But meanwhile, all his children are out of school because the state’s population policy recommends that government facilities for education be withheld from the third child onward. What remains unanswered is how the man’s having more than two children disqualifies his children from their right to education. Or how it disqualifies him from his citizen’s right to be a panchayat member.

As if to prove that this report fell on wilfully deaf ears, soon after, the Supreme Court upheld a Haryana law prohibiting anyone who has more than two children from contesting for, or holding, the post of sarpanch or panch. The court declared: “Disqualification on the right to contest an election for having more than two children does not contravene any fundamental right, nor does it cross the limits of reasonability. Rather, it is a disqualification conceptually devised in the national interest.”

Who are the people most affected by these developments' In a country where women can hardly be said to be in control of their lives, to penalize them for the age at which they were married, or the number of children they have, is clearly to be grossly out of touch with reality. In a country where we continue to have large numbers of people — women, Dalits, adivasis, the poor — peripheral to the mainstream of citizens with life choices, it must be a very peculiar sort of “national interest” that devises new ways of keeping the marginalized out of political participation, or the state benefits supposedly devised for them.

No one questions the fact that all citizens should have the right to healthier lives — including safe means of contraception. But does tying together family size and citizens’ rights with the iron chain of coercion lead to either better health or better lives' Recently, in a lecture in New Delhi, Amartya Sen pointed out that Kerala’s performance in reducing the birth rate — without coercion — has been much better than China’s where a coercive one-child norm resulted in a huge and disturbing imbalance in the sex ratio.

Not so long ago, we heard, ad nauseam, about the dangers of the population bomb — more, it seemed sometimes, than the real bomb. When this “people bomb” failed to explode, the international population control movement, taking its cue from feminists, pushed for family planning services that would address women’s (and men’s) reproductive needs and rights; not control population. In line with this shift in understanding, the Indian government’s national population policy affirmed in the year 2000 that the “commitment of the government towards voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens while availing of reproductive health care services, and continuation of the target free approach in administering family planning services”.

The policy was translated into a non-target oriented family welfare programme. There was to be no more falling back on the usual incentives (that famous transistor radio!) or the definitely less amusing disincentives. In other words, the government made a commitment to respect human rights — including the freedom and dignity of women. But in a case of spectacular disharmony between right and left hands, several state governments have announced population policies that violate this commitment.

Take the case of Andhra Pradesh, the state (or at least chief minister) with futuristic ambitions. Apparently the future-friendly state is not particularly in tune with recent ideas and findings on family planning programmes. The state lists an astonishing series of incentives and disincentives. At the community level, for instance, performance in the government reproductive and child health programme, and rates of couple protection, is to determine the construction of school buildings, public works, and funding for rural development programmes. Educational concessions, subsidies and promotions, and those still coveted government jobs are to be restricted to those who restrict themselves to two children. And those who accept terminal contraception methods are to be given preference when it comes to allotment of surplus agricultural land, housing sites, the benefits provided by the integrated rural development programme — to mention just a few examples.

Perhaps the most eloquent “scheme” is one worthy of Sanjay Gandhi’s fantasies. A “lucky dip” will give three couples from each district an award of Rs 10,000 each. All they have to do to qualify for the lucky dip is to be a couple who has adopted permanent contraception methods after either one child, or two girl children. Or got a vasectomy after a maximum of two children.

Andhra Pradesh, unfortunately, is not unique. The population policies of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh do not allow those women who have more than two children to contest elections to panchayati raj institutions. And in a fine case of punishing the victim, those who were married before the legal age of marriage are also disqualified from government jobs.

In response to these “legal” and “policy” developments, a range of indignant reactions has been heard — from women’s organizations that have some idea of how real lives function, to the usual fundoo suspects. Some of these worthies’ petitions actually argue that since Muslims are allowed four wives, they should be allowed two children per wife. Not surprisingly, these petitions have been thrown out of the window. Unfortunately, so have far more rational reactions that do not pander to the obsessions of any brand of fundoos. A number of health groups and women’s groups have, time and again, protested against these features of state population policies. Given their day-to-day experience of real people’s lives, they have argued that these “disincentives” and “incentives” are not just anti-women. They are also loaded against adivasis, Dalits, children — and, of course, the poor in general. In short, they violate what we perceive — or almost all of us perceive — as democratic rights.

How does this obsessive harking back to the two-child norm impinge on human rights' Large numbers of women, Dalits, adivasis, and the poor — precisely those sections of our society who need to assert their right to political participation — cannot contest elections to panchayati raj institutions. The field experience of women’s groups has shown that the two-child norm can lead to the desertion and abandonment of women and children, or forced abortion. Providing further impetus for sex-selective abortions will only help the already dismal child sex ratio deteriorate further. It is fairly obvious that health and safe contraceptive services are essential. But to propose punishment in a context of inequality — where women, Dalits, adivasis and other backward classes already bear more of the country’s mortality load' The only possible aim of such a move can be to widen inequalities, and increase the burden of the already vulnerable.

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