The Assam government’s proposal to exclude people with more than two children from a slew of public schemes follows in the wake of Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s advice to the “immigrant Muslim community” to adopt “decent family planning norms”. This questionable proposal is in bad company. According to a 2019 government resolution, government jobs in Assam are denied to people with more than two children from January 2021; those in service face disciplinary action if they disregard the norm. Similar norms, pertaining to contesting local body elections, are in force in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Odisha and Haryana. Evidence suggests that measures such as the two-child policy discriminate against the poor and the socially marginalised. As in Assam, they also serve as a communal dog-whistle.
These policies are a throwback to an era when governments, especially in totalitarian states like China, leaned on coercive instruments that penalised parents to curb population growth. These instruments and policies have conspicuously failed to work. Recently, five years after it lifted the one-child policy that it had enforced in 1980, China announced that it would allow married couples to have three children hereafter. Population growth in India is not a matter for concern, as indicated by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and Census data. India’s population is expected to peak by 2050 and then decline sharply with the total fertility rate projected to reach 1.3 by 2100. The focus is slowly shifting from child bearing to child rearing. This transition has been achieved through a judicious mix of policies that focussed on improving social indices such as literacy and healthcare, especially of women and children, and family planning measures, including promotion of modern contraceptives, though with varying degrees of success in different states. Assam has been no exception to this trend of declining TFR, including among the state’s Muslim population. According to the fifth NFHS (2019-20), the TFR for Muslims in Assam is 2.4, a sharp decline from 3.6 in 2005-06, steeper than among Hindus. The TFR for Muslims in Assam is higher than for Hindus, but that is due to socio-economic factors including relatively higher levels of poverty, lower levels of education and concentration in less developed, rural areas. This pattern is also visible in other parts of the country.
It would seem that the Assam government’s move is driven by bad faith. During the recent election campaign, Sarma suggested that the BJP’s political outreach does not extend to the 34 per cent Muslim minority of Assam since they do not vote for the party. A majoritarian appeal underlies the BJP’s and Sarma’s own political pitch in a state that has long been roiled by identity politics. But now that the campaign is over and the BJP is in government, its policies will be held up to the standards of fairness, freedom and equality. It cannot afford to fail the test.
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