The ill-advised two-child policy must be reviewed
A new draft Bill prepared by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Law Commission seeks to bar people having more than two children from contesting local body elections, availing themselves of subsidies, and applying for government jobs in the state. The Bill also proposes incentives for those who decide to adhere to the two-child policy. The state government aims to reduce the total fertility rate (TFR) in the state from 2.7 per cent to 2.1 per cent by 2026. UP is not the only state looking to control population growth in this manner. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, for instance, has also talked about a two-child policy while several other states have already barred people with more than two children from contesting local body elections.
It is correct that a very high level of population growth can create imbalances, which make the job of the state more difficult, but the way the issue is being approached is problematic and will have unintended consequences. For one, the approach is anti-poor as they tend to have more children than middle-class people. Second, the reason why people have more children is linked to high infant and child mortality. Parents want children to look after them in their old age. So, in a way, they are seen as insurance. Thus, a high death rate drives people to have more children. If the states want to ensure a lower and stable fertility rate, they first need to strengthen medical infrastructure. As experience in country after country — including parts of India — suggests, lower child mortality leads to a lower birth rate.
Third, this move comes at a time when India’s TFR — the number of babies born to a woman — is about to reach the net replacement rate, or NRR, of about 2.1-2.2. The TFR is higher in states such as UP, but that is because of its poor health record, including a high death rate. Thus, the right solution is to improve health facilities, not the disincentive route. And finally, this is asking for even more female infanticide because parents have a revealed preference for male offspring. The two-child limit means that if the first two children are girls, one of them faces a risk to life immediately after birth. The population control policy in China, for instance, resulted in a significant gender imbalance because of preference for a male child. The stated policy in UP and other states would have similar consequences, and will therefore skew the sex ratio even more. In fact, this could be particularly damaging for UP. According to the 2011 census, the state had 908 females per 1,000 males, compared to the national average of 940 females per 1,000 males. The two-child policy is bound to increase the imbalance.
Moreover, at a broader level, UP and other states are trying to address yesterday’s problem, which might end up creating difficulties for tomorrow. The TFR has already reached the near replacement rate and some states such as UP and Bihar are lagging because of inadequate public investment in health and education. Increased investment in these areas and empowerment of women will work far better than punitive measures. Attempts to address the population issue through exclusionary policies will not improve the quality of life in these states.