By Kalyani Shankar
Eyebrows were raised when Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed concern about population explosion in the country in his Independence Day speech on Thursday. The surprise was because it has been a ‘No-No’ issue to many politicians from the days of Emergency when the Indira Gandhi government used coercive population control measures. Her family planning programme received widespread condemnation and effectively never realized its purpose. Later, the ministry’s name was changed to Family Welfare.
India’s population is 1.34 billion, which is nearly a fourfold increase since independence. Modi has reasons for concern, as according to the World Population Prospects 2019 of the United Nations, India is further expected to add nearly 273 million people between 2019 and 2050. Inevitably, with these figures, “India is projected to surpass China as the World’s most populous country around 2027”, the report said. The biggest challenge for India is its unpreparedness to accommodate such a huge population. Looking at all these figures, “The time has now come that we should take such challenges ahead”, the Prime Minister said.
Interestingly, while Modi had been talking about India’s demographic dividend in his first term, he has realized in his second term that a large population by itself may not be a bad thing but it has to contribute to the growth. This needs to be supported by capital, technology and infrastructure as well as skills. That is why the Prime Minister is now talking of education as a means of both moderating the rising population and making them also productive. The country is already facing acute drinking water crisis, sewage treatment, inadequate rainfall, climate change, and increased level of pollution, high infant and child mortality rate and poor standard of living in poorer sections.
The Prime Minister’s speech was mainly targeted towards these poorer sections and his appeal to them for small family norm is aimed at improving their standard of living. He has noted that the poor are missing out on going up the ladder because of too many hands to feed. Making it a nationalistic issue, he said, “Those who follow the policy of small family also contribute to the development of the nation; it is also a form of patriotism”.
Why did Modi talk of population explosion now? It obviously stems from the fact that his hands are strengthened after the massive mandate he received in 2019 polls. Politically, Modi is much stronger today while the opposition is weak. Added to that was the recent success in Parliament where he could get controversial bills like Triple Talaq and scrapping of Article 370 pertaining to the special status of Jammu and Kashmir passed despite being in a minority in the Rajya Sabha.
Secondly, the Indian right wing including the BJP, has always expressed concern about the increasing minority population. They feel that the Muslims were trying to overtake Hindus in the country by multiplying fast. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, during his annual Dussehra address some time ago, noted, “We need to rise above vote bank politics to formulate a holistic approach, equally applicable to all citizens, towards the population policy.”
In Parliament too, the BJP members have raised the issue. Recently Rakesh Sinha, a BJP Member of Parliament, has introduced a private member’s bill to regulate population. Earlier another BJP member Saneev Balyan, who is now a minister, had also introduced another bill with the backing of 124 members.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee too had made an attempt in 2000 by bringing a forward-looking National Population Policy but it made the two-child norm a voluntary commitment for individuals. The Modi government has also followed this same approach that family-planning programme in India is target- free and voluntary in nature.
Modi’s speech has triggered speculations that a mild interventionist population policy is not far off. It is a very sensitive issue both at the state level as well as the religious level. The north -south divide, and the Hindu-Muslim divide are the two issues on population control. The southern states feel that its great success in bringing down the population level is costing them in terms of resources devolved from the Centre. Minority affairs minister Naqvi has claimed this week that it is a social reform.
The Prime Minister is not one who wastes words and he has used the Independence Day speech to prepare the country on population regulation. There is urgent need to push more aggressively concepts like two-child policy, advocating child spacing, contraceptive methods, promoting small family size, and persuading voluntary sterilization. Two-child norm should be made a uniform criterion for government jobs, getting aids and subsidies and other benefits. Perhaps incentives and disincentives might work better in containing the size of the family. The Health ministry is already implementing many of these schemes but much more will be needed to create awareness.
As India aspires to become a major economic power, it is time to define whether a growing population is an opportunity or a danger. (IPA Service)