Population Policy : Beyond Politics and Partisanship
The publication of Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in the late 1960s sounded a warning bell to politicians, policymakers and thinkers across the world regarding the burgeoning population and its catastrophic effect on the world. It predicted large scale famine, poverty and hunger and consequent loss of population. In his alarmist tone the author wrote in its preface, ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate’….”. The doomsday prediction and its aftermath has brought the issue from periphery to centre. Since then the debate over population growth has become the focus of discussion albeit with different volume. It may be noted that the idea of ‘’population explosion’ and Mathusian theory on differential growth rate of population and resources were already in circulation but the ticking bomb of teeming million population put everything out of orbit for a while. This provides now a starting point for an appraisal of political intervention through legislative reform as a means to deal with population problem.
The writing of Ehrlich served a warning to many nations and efforts were made across the globe to deal with the challenges of exponential growth of population, and it was to the credit of Ehrlich that he linked population to resources and environment. The response to this theory came in the form of two policy perspectives, namely population control and population influence. One by coercion and other by consensus. Countries like China who had to grapple with population issues and consequent resource crunch went ahead with a strong population control norm which restricted parents to have one child only, known as one-child norm. Other countries largely democratic in nature wanted a measured approach and opted for persuasive policy. The United Nations through then UNFPA and international aid programme mostly through USAID actively pursued and perused an aid linked and interventionist population stabilization measures that intended to ensure food security. This led to aid- dependent and newly independent countries to follow population control norms seriously if not systematically. However, the failure of many a prophecy of Ehrlich and his peers compounded with the Marxist perspective to development drew an alternative paradigm. This approach questioned the ‘myth of population bomb’ and stated that population is not a problem rather it is an advantage. Questioning the credential of capitalist economy and its prescription, it underlined the importance of redistribution of wealth and equitable use of resources. In fact, when we are discussing the benefits of ‘democratic dividend’, we are essentially talking about human as resources rather than a burden. However, the problem is not as simple as that, rather the solution lies between the demonization of population control and romanticization of human resource development.
India’s approach to population problem has largely been non-confrontationist and persuasive, occasionally taking a form of force. The sluggish 70s showed that the many of India’s problem viz. food security, poverty, deforestation, inverse man-land ratio, poor educational infrastructure are directly linked with over population. The demographic transition theory demonstrated the reasons behind overpopulation in developing countries and human capital theory tried to provide a solution in terms of managing our manpower but things did not improve much.
The ministry of Health of Government of India, took upon the task of limiting population growth through ‘family planning’ model and aggressively pushed the agenda through building awareness and publicity campaign. The slogan, ‘we two and we have two’, became very popular and somewhat promoted the small family norm. The family planning model focused on contraception, vasectomy, tubectomy and abstinence. It also tried leverage the families and persons who have voluntarily followed the norm. However, the imposition of emergency and indiscretion of late Sanjay Gandhi ensured forced approach to population control. He and his brigade went on forcing people for vasectomy and unleased a reign of terror. The death of Sanjaya Gandhi and post-Emergency politics sobered the drive and government went on a sleeping mode.
But the recent unveiling of Uttar Pradesh Population Policy 2021-2030 and the proposed legislation has resulted in both bouquets and brickbats for the government. This is has brought focus of the entire nation towards population policy and divided soundly the opinion among the intellectuals and discerning population. The protagonists have applauded the decision for the simple reason that current growth rate of population of 2.1 is too high and actually corresponds to Pre-Ehrlich era i.e. 1960 and the prosed effort to bring it down to 1.9 percent is what the world was having in 2018. Therefore, on this basis it’s a rather sound policy effort. The policy envisaged both incentive and dis-incentive packages for promoting and implementing this policy. The simple logic is more the birth rate, more mouths to feed and more pressure on the resources which is turn could jeopardize developmental efforts. The nature has the balancing mechanism through which it maintains ecological stability. But the technological advancement and better food distribution measures have meant the equilibrium is ruined. Hence, the effort to address the population growth has not been questioned but the motive and process have received wrath of detractors. In the context of India, it may be noted that by next year India will surpass the Chinese population an achievement that nobody wants.
The main worry for the opposition has been the motive and its possible impact especially among minorities and disadvantaged sections. But to my mind that does not hold water. The government is not forcing things on people, it has got the mandate to govern and administer policies which are beneficial for the citizens. It is indeed a welfare policy in the sense that hugely populated sate like UP lags behind in developmental parameters if not solely but mostly for the reasons of its over population. It puts enormous pressure on infrastructure and in distribution of benefits. But the question is Can the state deal with its burgeoning population through welfare and use of persuasive policies. The answer would be a resounding no, because 70 years of persuasive policies have not yield results. We have the habit of taking things lightly and leave things to other more often than not. Further, as Hardin tells us in the end is Tragedy of Commons, nobody bothers about common property and increasing population pressure has a devastating effect on common property resources in particular and environment in general. The other argument is, will it affect adversely to the marginalized population and communities, most probably not. In the short term it may look like but in long term it will empower and enrich them with social capital. The idea of more family members bringing more resources and wealth to mitigate poverty is both a myth and passé. The other diatribe is that it is aimed at a particular community, this for me is simply an effort of creating fear psychosis and politicizing a developmental design. For me, the most important question, however is, will it lead to sex selective abortion and in turn an adverse sex ratio. The prevalence of son preference syndrome in India and subsequent sex selection will wreak havoc in the life of women in general and female foetus in particular. This is most likely if the population policy is not accompanied by education and empowerment. The state needs to guard this and ensure a fair world for the fair sex esepcailly who are yet to born- the sacred yet defenceless.
By Tapan R. Mohanty
(The author is a Professor of Sociology, the views are personal).