The state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of over 220 million people, has long been a source of governance problems and has frequently rated low on development indexes. The state has presented a contentious plan aimed at slowing population growth. It suggests that everyone with more than two children is denied government positions, promotions, subsidies, and the opportunity to vote in local elections.
Given the strong and overwhelming preference for boys, experts have advised against a “coercive” two-child policy that denies women autonomy and boosts unsafe or sex-selective abortions. They are perplexed by the measure, produced by the state’s law commission because it contradicts Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) population control policy, which was also released on Sunday.
“The bill runs counter to an overarching population policy that addresses a wide range of issues including adolescent sexual and reproductive health, child and maternal mortality, and ageing,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of Population Foundation of India.
“UP has an 18% unmet need for contraception – instead of disempowering women further, we should be ensuring that they have access to a wide basket of contraceptive devices,” Ms Muttreja said.
Official figures demonstrate that India’s population is not growing; on average, women in most states have had fewer children than previously, thereby flattening the growth curve. According to government projections, the fertility rate in Uttar Pradesh has practically halved from 4.82 in 1993 to 2.7 in 2016, and it is predicted to reach 2.1 by 2025.
Fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels – 2.1 births per woman – in 19 of India’s 22 states and federally managed territories, according to statistics from the most recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS). Data from the remaining nine states, including Uttar Pradesh, is not yet available.
Fertility rates have fallen dramatically in nearly half of the world’s countries. According to the UN, the world fertility rate is anticipated to fall below replacement levels by 2070. China’s fertility rate was 1.3 in 2020, whereas India’s was 2.2 at the time of the last official count in 2016.
Increased knowledge, government programmes, urbanisation, upward mobility, and increased use of modern contraception methods have all contributed.
Why is this rule being implemented now?
Six states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh – account for about 40% of India’s population and have fertility rates higher than the replacement level of 2.1. This contrasts sharply with Kerala (1.8), Karnataka (1.7), Andhra Pradesh (1.7), and Goa (1.3).
Political analysts say UP’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is also planning to run in the state polls next year. And, by making such a bold move, he aims to indicate a development programme that is distinct from his polarising image as a right-wing Hindu nationalist.
This is also not a novel concept. More than 125 MPs wrote to the president in 2018 requesting the introduction of a two-child standard. The Supreme Court dismissed multiple petitions seeking population control measures the same year, citing the risk of a “civil war-like situation.” Since the early 1990s, 12 states have implemented some form of a two-child policy.
There has been no impartial examination, but a study in five states found an increase in unsafe and sex-selective abortions, as well as males divorcing their wives or giving up their children for adoption in order to run for office.
However, the outcomes have been mixed: four states have repealed the law; Bihar began in 2007 but still has the country’s highest fertility rate (3.4); and Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu have all witnessed a significant decline in fertility rates despite the absence of such regulations.
“India is at a perfect stage as far as population distribution is concerned,” Niranjan Saggurti, director of the Population Council’s office in India said.
According to experts, India has entered a demographic dividend, which refers to the ability of a young and energetic workforce to catapult economies out of poverty. It remains to be seen how India can capitalise on this, particularly in populous provinces like Uttar Pradesh.
“We need to invest in education and health systems,” Ms Muttreja said. “We can learn from Sri Lanka, which increased the marriageable age for girls, or from Bangladesh and Vietnam, which enabled a basket of non-permanent contraceptives to reach women on their doorstep.”