Interview with Brinda Karat, general secretary, AIDWA.
The release of the Census report on religions has stoked an old controversy over the growth rate of Hindu and Muslim populations. All kinds of interpretations are being made from the data and policies formulated on that basis. The Bharatiya Janata Party's directive to its Chief Ministers to formulate population policies on the basis of the two-child norm, using incentives and disincentives has been criticised, coming as it does in the wake of the "growth rate" controversy. Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), spoke to T.K. Rajalakshmi on the politicisation of the population debate. Excerpts from the interview:
The Census data on religious communities have led to a lot of controversy. There is also a section that has questioned the wisdom of releasing such data. What is your response?
It is not the first time that religion-based data have been released. I have seen statements by certain Ministers that they are against the release of religion-based data. I don't agree with that. It is not the data that are at fault but the interpretation of them. It is the narrow political platform that seeks to misuse the data.
The first important aspect of the report is that unlike previous Census reports, which gave only religion data, this Census gives cross-classification of the socio-economic indicators of different religious communities, which is a very important contribution of the Census report.
What are the implications of the cross-classification of data?
All over the world it has been proved time and again that the choice of family size or family planning is not related to religious affiliation. If one looks at the demographic patterns in Muslim countries, we find that the determining factors of whether the population is going up or going down, are related to social or socio-economic indicators. In Bangladesh, which is a Muslim majority country, the contraceptive prevalence rate is as high as 50 per cent, much higher than that of India. Figures and facts prove that population size or family planning have little to do with religion. It is connected with economic status, income status, occupational status, infant mortality rates, levels of education and literacy and the ability of women to make choices. The issue of women's autonomy is a very crucial aspect of family planning or family choice.
In the National Family Health Survey II, which has a very large sample size, when the surveyors asked married women - the category is called "ever married women" - as to what would be their ideal size of their family, 75 to 82 per cent women replied that an ideal family should comprise two children, and maybe three. So the question was asked that if only two children were wanted then why was is it that they had more children. The respondents replied that one, that they were afraid of infant deaths, two, they did not have access to contraceptives and three, that they did not have rights over their own bodies.
Any government looking at the present Census figures will see reflected in those figures the deep inequalities between communities and within communities. There are also no monolithic groups like Hindus and Muslims. There is certainly a problem in the presentation of the data. To present the data in an isolated manner, obfuscating the very facts that the Census has brought out, can provide an extremely misleading picture. The problem is not the data. The presentation was misleading as the Census appeared to be contradicting its own findings as reflected in the cross-classified data.
The data on religions have provoked certain sections to talk about the two-child norm and population control policies. Despite India being a signatory to the Cairo declaration in 1994 and the apparent paradigm shift in population policies, it appears that the old notions of population control are being revived.
What is striking about the entire public debate after the release of this data is the shocking silence on the sex ratio. The sex ratios have been available for some time now and the Census Commissioner ought to be congratulated for his work on this aspect. But the BJP, which has been clamouring about certain growth rates, is deafeningly silent on the issue of sex ratio. One wonders that when they talk about population, they seem to be looking at it with a communally jaundiced view. No right-thinking person or citizen can look at the Census data without looking at the sex ratio. There is a clear preference against daughters, especially among the well-off in urban areas. In this context, to talk about the two-child norm is like female genocide. It must be remembered that it was also under the wise leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] that the National Population Policy was adopted just four years ago. A Population Commission was also set up with a corpus of Rs.100 crores with very eminent people. The NPP demarcated itself from earlier attempts of family planning by reiterating that the best population policies are those that eschew targeting, quotas, incentives and disincentives. The NPP made a commitment that it would do away with these four negatives and that it would look into the determining factors. Within four years, the BJP does an about-turn without explaining why is this so. In some States where the two-child norm has been implemented and people have been made ineligible for contesting elections, it has been seen that the poorer sections have suffered the most. First, the poor are being punished for their poverty by denying them the very basic constitutional right - that of standing for elections. Without a constitutional amendment, in the name of giving the State governments and panchayats the right to make rules, the power to tamper with a basic fundamental right has been given. Research shows that Dalits, the Adivasis and the rural poor tend to have a higher fertility rate owing to high infant mortality rates among them. The two-child norm discriminates against them.
The United Progressive Alliance government too, in the National Common Minimum Programme, has committed itself to strong population stabilisation measures.
We are concerned about the UPA's disturbing formulation in the CMP on population. They have also reverted to the use of the term population control and are once again bringing back population control ideologies into the government, which have proved so disastrous in the past. In this, a note is being circulated by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. It is shocking in the extreme as it promotes sterilisation as the key to population control and proposes a range of incentives to doctors to perform sterilisation. The first point is the utter failure of sterilisation as a means of contraception as people get sterilised after they have had the optimum number of children; secondly the entire programme is geared to against women. The entire burden is to be borne by women and so it is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable from the point of view of the NPP and the Cairo Declaration which the government is a signatory to.