What should we do? Run relief camps for them? Do we want to open baby-producing centres? Hum paanch, humaare pachhees [We five and our 25]. Gujarat has not been able to control its growing population and poor people have not been able to get money... . We have to teach a lesson to those who are increasing population at an alarming rate.
- Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's speech at the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra public meeting in Besraji village, Mehsana, September 9, 2002.
TWO years ago, Narendra Modi's speech shocked many, coming as it did a few months after the communal violence in Gujarat had died down. Given such a record, there was cause for suspicion when the Chief Minister announced the formation of a commission on population control headed by him soon after the religion-wise Census data was released. The government says the committee has been set up to "achieve the goals set in the State population policy".
Gujarat Law Minister Ashok Bhatt told Frontline that the commission was set up to implement the State's population policy framed in 2000. "The policy aims to reduce the infant mortality and maternal mortality rates so that the birth rate falls. It is a plan for the entire population, not for separate communities," he explained.
However, the Bharatiya Janata Party government's earlier population control plans leave room for doubt. In 2001, the Keshubhai Patel government proposed to undertake measures that would penalise parents for having more than two children by making them ineligible for benefits such as ration supplies, free education, health care and maternity leave. All such plans were shelved when the government came under criticism from various quarters. In March 2003, the Modi government asked the police to survey Christian organisations and find out how many people they had converted to Christianity. This was just before the government announced its decision to table the `Freedom of Religion Bill' in the Gujarat Assembly, which would have made it mandatory for those changing their religion to seek the permission of the District Collector.
While the Sangh Parivar prefers to project the Muslim community as one that is illiterate and underdeveloped, Census data proves the contrary. The 2001 Census shows that the Muslim literacy rate in Gujarat (73.47 per cent) is higher than the Hindu literacy rate (68.31 per cent); and the State average was 69.14 per cent. The annual growth rate of Muslims was 2.7 per cent, slightly higher than the Hindus' at 2.2 per cent. However, demographer Leela Visaria points out that Kutch and two taluks in Rajkot were not counted in 2001 because of the earthquake and may not have been included in the new Census data. If they were, it would have pushed up the Hindu growth rate.
However, the real problems facing the State are its abysmal sex ratio and infant mortality rates. At 878:1000 in the 0-6 years age group, Gujarat has one of the five worst sex ratios, lower than even Bihar's 938:1000. It implies that a rather different method of population control is being used. Infant girls are being eliminated soon after they are born. Economist Amartya Sen calls them India's `missing' girls.