A voice of sanity

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

The NHRC's intervention in the matter of certain questionable provisions in the population policies of some States is a welcome step.

THE National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), through its forthright and unambiguous intervention in the communal holocaust in Gujarat, did much to restore the diminishing faith of the public in the institutions of this country. The NHRC has yet again revealed its commitment to democracy and basic rights by issuing notices early in August to five State governments regarding certain questionable provisions in their population control policies. The States that have been asked to explain themselves are Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.

In February 2000, the Government of India adopted the National Population Policy (NPP), a document that to most analysts is certainly not devoid of serious problems (Frontline, March 17, 2000). It has population stabilisation rather than the health and well-being of the people as its goal, and it is not integrated with health or indeed with the myriad other sectors that provide the contours of population dynamics. Yet one undoubtedly positive feature of the NPP is that it resolutely affirms the commitment of the government "towards voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens while availing of reproductive health care services, and continuation of the target-free approach in administering family planning services". These commitments for human rights and the freedom and dignity of women were translated into a non-target-oriented family welfare programme, which rightly abjured incentives and disincentives.

On the other hand, several State governments, some of them at the behest of a U.S. consultancy firm, have announced population policies that in significant ways violate the letter and the spirit of the NPP.

Andhra Pradesh, for instance, lists an astonishing series of incentives and disincentives. At the community level, performance in reproductive and child health (RCH) and the rates of couple protection will determine the construction of school buildings, public works and funding for rural development programmes. Performance in RCH is also to be made the criterion for full coverage under programmes such as TRYSEM (Training of Youth for Self Employment), DWCRA (Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas), the Weaker Sections Housing Scheme, and the Low Cost Sanitation Scheme. Allotment of surplus agricultural land, house sites, as well as benefits under the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), the Scheduled Castes Action Plan, and the Backward Classes Action Plan are to be given preferentially to those who accept terminal methods of contraception. Educational concessions, subsidies and promotions in as well as recruitment to government jobs are to be restricted to those who accept the small family norm. In a macabre metaphor of the lottery that is the life of the poor in India, an award of Rs.10,000 is to be given to each of three couples to be selected from every district on the basis of a "lucky dip". The eligible include three couples per district with two girl-children and adopting permanent methods of family planning, three couples per district with one child adopting permanent methods of family planning and three couples per district with two or fewer children and adopting vasectomy.

The population policies of U.P., Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh also carry many of these features. All of them bar women with more than two children from contesting elections to panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). The U.P. population policy also bars persons married before the legal age of marriage from government jobs, thus holding the victims of social iniquities responsible for their victimisation. Further, 10 per cent of financial assistance to panchayats is to be based on their performance in family planning programmes. Indeed, in an ominous reprise of the Emergency days - which dealt a bludgeon blow to the credibility of the programme - the assessment of the performance of medical officers and other health workers is linked to performance in the RCH programme.

A number of health groups and women's groups in the country have vigorously protested against these draconian features of State population policies, indeed even compelling States such as Maharashtra and Gujarat to reconsider their approach. Demonstrations have been held in various States, memoranda submitted, and appeals made to the highest authorities in the country.

It has been pointed out that the disincentives and incentives are anti-women, anti-Adivasi, anti-Dalit, anti-child and anti-poor in general. They are also profoundly violative of human and democratic rights. The disincentives proposed - such as denying ration cards and education in government schools for the third child, withdrawal of welfare programmes for members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who have more than two children, and debarring such people from government jobs, among others, are questionable on various grounds. The National Family Health Survey for 1998-99 shows that the total fertility rate (TFR) is 3.15 for S.Cs, 3.06 for S.Ts, 2.66 among Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and 3.47 among illiterate women as a whole. In contrast, the TFR is 1.99 among better-off women, most of whom are likely to be educated beyond the tenth grade. Imposition of the two-child norm, and the disincentives proposed, would mean that significant sections among these already deprived populations would bear the brunt of the State's withdrawal of ameliorative measures, pitiably inadequate as they are.

The two-child norm bars large sections of Dalits, Adivasis and the poor in general from contesting elections to PRIs and thus deprives them of their democratic rights. Further, in the States where they have been imposed - as in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan - women have been deserted, or forced to undergo sex-selective abortions. In fact, the policy norm provides an impetus for sex-selective abortions, worsening an already terrible child sex ratio in the country.

As the NPP itself acknowledges, there is a huge need for health care services and safe contraception. To propose punitive measures in this regard is clearly absurd. Reflecting their deprivation, Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs bear a significantly higher proportion of the mortality load in the country. The National Family Health Survey for 1998-99 notes that the infant mortality rate (IMR) among the S.Cs, S.Ts and OBCs is 83, 84 and 76 respectively, compared to 62 for "Others" (all mortality figures are computed in proportion to 1,000 live births). Similarly, the under five mortality rate is 119 among the S.Cs, 126 among the S.Ts, and 103 among the OBCs as compared to 82 among the "Others". Clearly, to impose a two-child norm in such circumstances is to widen inequality. Instead of dealing with the causes for these differentials, what the State population policies seek to do is to punish victims for their poverty and deprivation.

Further, the State policies violate several fundamental rights, the Directive Principles of the Constitution, as well as several international Covenants that India is a signatory to. These include the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Platform of Action and the Cairo Declaration.

In spite of this concerted campaign, the State Law Commission of Uttar Pradesh drafted the Uttar Pradesh Population Control Bill, 2002. This Bill codifies all the anti-human rights features of the State population policies. At the same time, sinister moves are afoot at the level of the Central government to undo the positive features of the NPP. Reports indicate that a "strategy paper" has been prepared to review the NPP (Frontline, June 21, 2002). This anonymous document, leaked to the press, does not carry the imprimatur of either the National Population Commission or the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Hence, it lacks the mandate of any statutory advisory or decision-making body.

The document itself is poorly substantiated by data, deeply contradictory and shockingly at variance with NPP 2000. The NPP, as noted earlier, recognises that there is a large and unmet need for quality health and reproductive and child health services. It also recognises the fact that IMRs are still unconscionably high and that there is an urgent need to strengthen health services, attending in particular to the needs of the poor and the marginalised. Above all, it recognises the need for quality services that respect the dignity of people, even as it emphasises equity.

The strategy paper, on the other hand, is drafted in the ahistorical and unscientific language of Malthusian scare-mongering. While it recognises that the infrastructure is weak, and that the quality and coverage of health services are poor, it attributes these failures of the state primarily to population growth. While it recognises the fact that there is an adverse sex ratio, it is not averse to calling for a two-child national norm when it is absolutely clear that such norms have contributed to the adverse sex ratio. While it recognises the fact that there is an unmet need for health and family welfare services, it rather contrarily calls for a range of incentives and disincentives, holding up Andhra Pradesh as an example. Further, it argues, incorrectly, that China continues to have a one-child norm. In any case, comparisons between India and China are inapposite for a large number of reasons, including per capita incomes, achievements in health, equity and education, that India unfortunately cannot boast of.

Finally, the so-called strategy paper suggests invidiously that concern for rights and equity exist only in non-governmental organisations that are financially supported by the United Nations Population Fund.

What the strategy paper does not recognise is that given the age structure of the population, population growth will continue owing to what demographers call momentum. This contributes to as much as 69.7 per cent of population growth. A further 24.4 per cent is due to the unmet need for family planning services. To speak of punitive disincentives in this context indicates a mindset steeped in the discredited racist theories of eugenics.

It is in this context that a large number of health groups and women's groups came together in May to present a memorandum to the NHRC. The memorandum made the following pleas to the NHRC:

* That depriving children of their rights to survival and development is not only violative of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, but also of successive directives of the Supreme Court to enhance their right to education. The NHRC is requested to direct the States to comply with these directives and not use population policies to deny these rights.

* That the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution sought to strengthen and expand the base for India's democratic governance by providing constitutional recognition to local bodies for self-governance. State-level legislative measures on panchayati raj, which hold out the threat of disqualification for violation of the two-child norm, invariably cite the NPP as the rationale for such a restrictive and punitive measure for elected representatives of panchayats, when the NPP does not provide for such a norm. Similar disqualifying provisions are absent for representatives elected to State Assemblies and Parliament. The NHRC is requested to take cognisance of this violation of constitutional rights, and direct the States to strike down these provisions.

* That the NHRC take measures to ensure that the steps proposed in the strategy paper and the U.P. Population Control Bill that violate human rights are not included in the population policy now.

It is in response to this petition that the NHRC issued notices to the State governments. It appears that sustained Cold War-era propaganda over many decades has convinced some of our policymakers that population growth lies at the heart of all the social problems of our country. This is reflected by a score of private members' Bills in Parliament seeking punitive measures to control the population. The NHRC's intervention is therefore a voice of sanity and rationality, of caring for the poor and deprived, of concern for the rights of citizens that are enshrined in the Constitution. Yes, there will be singing in dark times.

Prof. Mohan Rao is with the Social Medicine and Community Health Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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