“Something huge is coming. PM hints at the menace of population explosion,” senior RSS leader and national convener of its intellectual wing Prajna Pravah J Nandakumar tweeted minutes after Narendra Modi raised the issue of ‘population explosion’ and emphasised on family planning and smaller families linking it to both patriotism and a better standard of life.
“Parents in India now need to give a serious thought to whether they will be able to fulfill their child's dreams and aspirations and support a new life. A small section of society, which keeps their families small, deserves respect. What they are doing is an act of patriotism,” he said in his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort today.
While politicians and experts have been raising serious concerns over growing water shortage, pollution, mindless urbanisation, malnutrition and impending energy crisis over the years, very little attention has been paid to the core issue of a burgeoning population, which is putting pressure not only on water but the entire gamut of scarce national resources.
After late Indira Gandhi, Modi is perhaps the first prime minister to address the contentious issue.
In his address, Modi said, "I want you to do proper family planning and you will naturally see that a smaller family can be happier and more content. Your family will be away from diseases, will have more resources…Twenty-first century India needs to understand that development and prosperity begin only when individuals are healthy and resourceful. There are so many illnesses spread that our efforts cannot just be at the government level. We need to go public with our efforts."
India accounts for 18 per cent of the world’s total population. The United Nation's 2017 World Population Prospect had predicted that the country’s population was set to surpass China in 2024 and projected to touch 1.5 billion in 2030. The demand for water in 2050 is projected to be more than 50 per cent of what it was in 2000 while the demand for food is expected to double and even if India manages to feed its expanding population, its growth may not be ecologically sustainable.
Unfortunately, no one is talking about it except isolated voices here and there. Politicians both from ruling and opposition parties have avoided any discussion on the population issue apparently because of the after effects of the infamous 1975 Emergency which witnessed forced sterilisation of unmarried youth and even children. ‘Hum Do Hamare Do’ slogans and even contraceptive and birth control advertisements are hard to see these days except of those of luxury condoms where the emphasis is more on fun and responsible sex to prevent HIV.
In the 2019 elections, no party uttered a word about it as if the problem did not exist. Intellectuals and experts too are maintaining a discreet silence on the issue with some even claiming that population control need not be a priority at all as it has attained stability over the years.
The soothsayers take solace from the census data wherein the decadal growth rate has declined from 21.15 percent in census 2001 to 17.64 percent in census 2011, while the crude birth rate (CBR) has reduced from 23.1 to 19 and the total fertility rate (TFR) has reduced from 2.6 to 2.2.
However, in March last year, the Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Anupriya Patel stated in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha that the ministry had identified India's population growth as a key problem associated with providing healthcare, employment and social security.
The issue grabs news headlines only when some BJP or Sangh Parivar leaders express concern over declining Hindu population or increasing minority population or when they ask women from the majority community to produce more children.
Yoga Guru Ramdev too waded into controversy earlier this year when he asked the government to enact a law whereby third child should not be allowed to vote and enjoy facilities provided by the government, with a view to curb population – a demand which came for widespread condemnation from critics who asked why the innocent child should be punished for no fault of his or her.
The reluctance of successive Central governments to implement a two child policy can also be attributed to the fact that India is a signatory to the International Conference on Population and Development Declaration, which was signed in 1994. The declaration supports reproductive rights of couples to decide the number and spacing of children.
While it is true that with growing inflation and declining infant mortality rates, young educated couples are opting for single child or two at the most to provide them with quality life including education, the fact also remains that in rural areas, women continue to be treated as child producing machines and more children are seen as more earning hands. The obsession for boy child too is no less demanding on the women who have to keep conceiving till they produce a male heir.
Some time back, the Delhi High Court issued notice to the Centre on a PIL moved by a city BJP leader and the case will be next heard on September 3. The PIL had sought directions to the Centre to implement population control measures on the ground that population explosion is the root cause behind rise in crimes, pollution and dearth of resources and jobs. It sought implementation of recommendations for population control made by the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) headed by Justice Venkatchaliah. The NCRWC, after elaborate discussions, had suggested addition of Article 47A in the Constitution and formulation of Population Control Law.
The petitioner also sought an order from the court declaring that the Centre ‘may set two-child norm, as a criteria for government jobs, aids and subsidies, and, may withdraw statutory rights viz. right to vote, right to contest, right to property, right to free shelter and right to free legal aid’ for not complying with it.
Many BJP MPs too have demanded implementation of the two-child policy. BJP's Raghav Lakhanpal Sharma had moved a private resolution in the Lok Sabha during the 2017 winter session of Parliament seeking amendment to the National Population Policy of 2000 to make two-child norm mandatory.
Another BJP leader and now Minister Prahlad Patel too had introduced a private member bill in the Lok Sabha in 2016. Titled, Population Control Bill 2016, it stated, "No person shall procreate more than two living children after a period of one year from the commencement of this Act." The bill was never put to vote.
Based on a draft prepared by an expert group headed by MS Swaminathan, the Vajpayee Government in 2000 had put in place the National Population Policy (NPP) which stated that its immediate objective was to “address the unmet needs for contraception, healthcare infrastructure, and health personnel, and to provide integrated service delivery for basic reproductive and child healthcare.”
Whether it be GST, triple talaq or combating the menace of terrorism, Modi has walked the talk. It is hoped that the prime minister will follow up the concern he expressed today with pro-active measures including revisiting the NPP and introducing incentives and disincentives to check population explosion, which has the potential to derail his ‘Vikas’ agenda.
Read his columns
KG Suresh is a senior journalist and former director general, Indian Institute of Mass Communication. .