Victims of coercion

Print edition : November 19, 2004

A two-day tribunal in Delhi discusses the misery that coercive population policies and the two-child norm have inflicted on the weaker sections in many States.

in New Delhi

Mangi Bai of Pratapgarh, Rajasthan, who had four children after she underwent sterilisation in 1997.-T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

SUMITRA, from Bhaisru Khurd village in Rohtak district of Haryana, contested the panchayati raj elections in 2000. She had stated in the nomination form that she had three children. She won the elections and was elected sarpanch but had to forgo the post after a member from the Opposition camp reported to the authorities that she had violated the provisions of the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 Section 175(1) (q) of which debars any person having more than two children from contesting for or holding office at any level of panchayati raj institutions. The Act, however, provides that a person having more than two children on or up to the expiry of one year of the commencement of the Act shall not be disqualified. Sumitra's third child was born on November 21, 1995. She fought a legal battle for four years but her disqualification was upheld.

Sumitra was one among several others who narrated their experiences in this regard at a national People's Tribunal on Coercive Population Policies and Two Child Norm held in Delhi on October 9 and 10. Organised by the Human Rights Law Network, the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (People's Health Movement), Healthwatch (of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), Sama (a women's organisation working on health rights) and The Hunger Project (an international movement, which works in as many as 14 Indian States), the tribunal looked critically at various State population policies and the experiences of people in those States, and eventually came to the conclusion that coercive population policies had no place in a democracy like India.

The members of the tribunal, who heard the testimonies, included Vasanthi Devi, Chairperson, Tamil Nadu Women's Commission; Jashodhara Bagchi, Chairperson, West Bengal Women's Commission; Mira Shiva, Director, Public Health Policy division, Voluntary Health Association of India; Imrana Qadeer, Professor, Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University; and Shabana Azmi, former member of the Rajya Sabha.

Speaking at the tribunal, Sumitra said that the laws debarring persons with more than two children from holding public positions should first be applied to those contesting Assembly and Parliament elections. If population control was the objective, then such laws should be applied to all constitutional positions and not merely to grassroot institutions of parliamentary democracy, she said.

Many others like Sumitra deposed freely before the tribunal; some broke down while narrating their terrible experiences with family planning programmes. The testimonies underscored the urgent need for doing away with the two-child norm that is earnestly pursued in as many as five States in the country. They also pointed to the dismal healthcare system in some States, including those where the norm was in vogue.

The Haryana case studies, which were presented by Jagmati Sangwan, secretary of the State unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), were all that of Scheduled Caste members, two of whom had been elected unopposed. The Haryana delegation pointed out that as of March 10, 2004, as many as 1,350 persons from the State had been disqualified, including several women. The figure touched 4,000 when it included those from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Jagmati Sangwan said it was strange that State governments often responded promptly in disqualifying Dalit and women representatives under the two-child norm but seldom took action against those who routinely insulted Dalit sarpanchs. She said the spirit of the 73rd Amendment had been "killed" by the two-child norm.

Suran Pulamma, a Dalit from Rangareddy district of Andhra Pradesh, was married off at the age of 13 to a 35-year-old man. Her first child was born the following year and she was sterilised at the age of 18. She was given Rs.600 under the Janani Suraksha Yojana for undergoing the sterilisation. But today she suffers from intense stomach pain. Her husband died of heavy drinking and 20-year-old Pulamma now works as a daily wage labourer to feed herself and her minor daughter.

Gyagerela Bandemma, also from the same district, deposed how she too was married off at the age of 13, gave birth at 14 and got sterilised at 18 years. She was persuaded by her father to undergo the operation since she was promised a house and a deposit of Rs.5,000 for her girl child under the Balika Samrakshana programme. The house she got is being used by her parents.

Bhumani Shanthamma, also from Rangareddy district, had a similar story to tell - the only difference being that her operation had failed. She was given no compensation for the failed sterilisation apart from the Rs.600 she got. She suffers from stomach pain and is unable to do any hard work.

But others like Kuramdasu Lakshmi, from Vishakapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh, were denied benefits under the Arogyaraksha scheme or the Balika Samrakshana scheme just because they had more than two children. For the same reason, Kare Jyothi of East Godavari district of the State was judged ineligible for rations under the Public Distribution System.

The abundance of such cases in Andhra Pradesh shows that the two-child norm is being implemented vigorously in the State as part of family planning measures. The State is held as an exemplary model of success in the family planning programme by the Union Health Ministry. In terms of sterilisations performed, the State topped the list in the country, said Francis Raj, director, Voices, a Hyderabad-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).

The family planning drive in Andhra Pradesh received a boost in the past five years and the then State government acknowledged that "the single most important intervention that has resulted in the commendable performance of A.P. on the population front is the large-scale availability of family planning operation services to eligible couples of the State". From 5.14 lakhs in 1996-97, the number of those sterilised went up to 8.08 lakhs in 2001-2002. Compensation or incentive to the "acceptors" was hiked from Rs.120 to Rs.500.

Schemes like Aarogyaraksha provide insurance coverage to the acceptors of family planning with two children. But Francis Raj said that neither the two-child norm nor the push for sterilisation had led to a rise in the juvenile sex ratio, female literacy, or the age at marriage or improvement in the maternal mortality rate, the infant mortality rate or reproductive health. Instead, young girls from poor families were undergoing sterilisation soon after marriage, in the hope of getting some monetary benefits, Francis Raj said.

The population policy of Andhra Pradesh links population stabilisation to improvement in the standard of living and quality of life of the people and also encourages the use of threat, incentives and disincentives to achieve it. For instance, community-level performance in reproductive and child health (RCH) programmes and the rates of couple protection determine the funding for rural development programmes, the construction of school buildings and other public works. The performance in the RCH indicators also determines the eligibility for community-level low-cost sanitation schemes and housing schemes for the weaker sections. At the individual level, cash prizes are awarded to couples adopting terminal methods of family planning. A 2003 study by the Bhopal-based Mahila Chetna Manch found that of the 23 panchayat representatives interviewed from Andhra Pradesh, the majority had been disqualified for crossing the two-child norm.

NIRMALA BUCH, former Union Secretary and also former Chief Secretary in the Madhya Pradesh government, who heads the Mahila Chetna Manch, says that the right to contest is as important as the right to vote. The Mahila Chetna Manch's study of five States where the two-child norm had been applied to panchayati raj institutions found that of the 136 disqualified representatives interviewed, 80 per cent were from the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and backward castes, while 40 per cent were women. Buch said that until March 2004, 72 per cent of the disqualified cases from Madhya Pradesh came from these groups. "There is a definite type of politics at work here. It is not a simple case of population control and family size," she says emphatically. Overall, she says, the elected representatives facing disqualification are young (in the 21-49 age group), poor, predominantly from the backward castes and women.

Buch says that there is an overwhelming opinion among policy-makers, implementers, lawyers and even NGOs that the two-child norm is necessary to reduce the family size and the population growth rate and to give an impetus to development; the courts have also in recent times accepted the desirability of "population control".

Case studies from Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Manipur, Bihar, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra presented before the tribunal showed that access to the "green card" (the Below Poverty Line card for procuring PDS rations) was denied to women after the birth of a third child as in the case of Charulata Sahu of Orissa, Sudha Singh of Madhya Pradesh who died after undergoing an abortion and a sterilisation procedure at a government hospital in Kanpur, or Manti Devi of Mirzapur (Uttar Pradesh), who gave birth to two children after being sterilised.

Vasanthi Devi felt that the government ought to practise transparency in respect of all information regarding health services. She wondered how States could be permitted to announce policies that were contrary to the National Population Policy.

P.K. Hota, Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who attended the second day's proceedings, responded to some of the questions put up by the tribunal members but was largely non-committal. He said aberrations might take place, but not a single Indian could be coerced into adopting family planning measures. While being evasive about whether the government could do anything about the incentives and disincentives, he offered to have a meeting with a "small group" of the tribunal members.

The immediate provocation for holding the tribunal was a recent initiative by the Health Ministry to launch a sharply targeted family planning programme in 209 high-fertility districts. A few days before it was organised, the Supreme Court had upheld the validity of the disqualification of Zile Singh, a municipal council member in Haryana. The disqualification was effected under Section 13A of the Haryana Municipal (Amendment) Act, 1994. The order more or less upheld the legal validity of the two-child norm as well.

The last time the constitutional validity of the norm was upheld was in 2003 in Javed & others vs State of Haryana & others; the apex court then held "that disqualification is attracted no sooner a third child is born and is living after two living children and merely because the couple has parted with one child by giving it away in adoption, the disqualification does not come to an end". It also pointed out "how the growth of population of India was alarming and posed a menace to be checked. It was in [the] national interest to check the growth of population by casting disincentives even through legislation". The court ruled that the right to contest is not a fundamental right but one that is conferred by law. "The statute which confers the right to contest an election can also provide for the necessary qualifications and disqualifications for holding an elective office," it held.

The public debate over coercive population policies and the two-child norm has just about begun. The demand to do away with the norm has gained momentum in the context of the targets set out in the Common Minimum Programme of the ruling United Progressive Alliance. The CMP, which claims to be pro-poor, has not even begun to address schemes that have unleashed unmitigated misery on the very constituency that it purports to serve.

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