Policy Issues

Marginalising further

Print edition : May 26, 2017

Tiwa children with an old woman in Karbi Anglong district of Assam. A human development survey has revealed that about 65 per cent of the rural households in the State do not possess any agricultural asset such as ploughs, bullock carts or farm equipment. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Pijush Hazarika, Member of the Legislative Assembly, takes stock of the situation in Pholihamari char in the middle of the Brahmaputra river in Morigaon district of Assam on June 25, 2016. Population groups in the char areas, tea belts and tribal areas of the State are some of the intended beneficiaries of the draft population policy. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The provisions in Assam’s draft population policy may further reduce the share of certain groups in government employment and push a large number of the poor out of the social safety net.

A DRAFT population policy announced by the Assam government has proposed a set of incentives and disincentives to encourage people to adopt small family norms. One of the disincentives proposed in the policy is that “candidates having two children only will be eligible for government employment”. It also proposes that “persons, both male and female, who violate the legal age of marriage will not be eligible for any employment or employment generation schemes of [the] government”.

However, human development reports and data on the distribution of government employees according to religion, social groups and mother tongue show that such disincentives may fail to work and also have the potential to expose the ethnic, linguistic and religious fault lines in the north-eastern State. For instance, some of the target groups already have very low representation in government employment. This raises the question whether such disincentives will make the desired impact. Besides, the draft policy is silent on whether these disincentives will be made applicable with retrospective effect, that is, whether someone with more than two children before the particular date from which the policy comes into effect will be considered ineligible for a government job or employment-generation scheme. If so, it runs the risk of further reducing the share of the target groups in government employment and of pushing a large number of poor and downtrodden families out of the social safety net. This will negate the positive impact of the incentives announced in the policy such as providing free education to girls up to university level.

The draft population policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in the State, announced by Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on April 9, created ripples in political circles as Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders and other Sangh Parivar ideologues have been making appeals to Hindu families to give birth to at least 10 children. The government has put the policy in the public domain to seek the stakeholders’ feedback with July 15 as the deadline. It plans to table the policy on the floor of the Assembly in August.

Target groups

The draft policy apparently marks a shift from a primarily medical-led policy to one based on social reform. Population groups in char areas, tea belts and tribal areas of the State are some of the intended beneficiaries of the policy. Char areas comprise the mid-channel sandbars along the course of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries spread over 14 districts and cover about 25 lakh people in the State. The majority of the char dwellers belong to migrant Muslim families from erstwhile East Bengal and East Pakistan and their descendants. The 14-page document states that incidences of underage marriage among girls (in the 14-16 age group) and among boys (in the 16-20 age group) are widespread in these areas. “Some communities also have high incidences of underage marriage and polygamy,” states the policy document.

The State has 26 Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) accounting for 12.44 per cent (38.84 lakh) and 22 Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) accounting for 7.15 per cent (22.31 lakh) of the population. As many as 31 communities, including the tea tribes, are enlisted as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the State.

A document titled “Report on Employees of Assam Government and Other Establishments 2009”, published by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Assam, on June 21, 2014, says that Hindus constitute about 81.88 per cent of the 3,92,965 government employees as on March 31, 2009. Muslims account for 16.41 per cent, Christians 1.35 per cent and other religious groups 0.33 per cent. In 2004, the corresponding figures were 84.76, 13.64, 1.36, and 0.19. The data of the Census of State government employees conducted by the Directorate in 2014 are yet to be firmed up.

The distribution of the government employees according to mother tongue shows that the Assamese constitute 74.20 per cent, Bengali 12.01 per cent, Bodo 4.85 per cent, Hindi 1.58 per cent, Karbi 1.54 per cent, Nepali 1.07 per cent, Mising 1.09, Rabha 0.37 per cent and others 3.02 per cent. The corresponding figures for 2004 recorded in the employees’ census were as follows: Assamese 77.37 per cent, Bengali 11.21 per cent, Bodo 4.91 per cent, Hindi 1.13 per cent, Karbi 0.65 per cent, Nepali 0.71 per cent, Mising 0.69 per cent, Rabha 0.50 per cent, and others 2.43 per cent. The distribution of the government employees according to social groups, included in the report, show that S.Cs constitute 7.12 per cent, S.Ts (plains) 10.92 per cent, S.Ts (hills) 2.75 per cent, OBCs 32.33 per cent and others 46.86 per cent. The corresponding figures in 2004 were 6.64, 10.20, 2.11, 29.19, and 51.86. Of the total 3,92,965 government employees, 3,18,457 are male and 74,508 are female. In 2004, it was 3,24,178 (264,924 male and 59,254 female).

Assam’s total population according to Census 2011 is 3.12 crore. It was 2.67 crore in Census 2001. Decadal growth rate declined from 18.85 per cent in 2001 to 17.07 per cent in 2011. State-wise religion data of Census 2011 show that Hindus account for 61.41 per cent of the State’s population followed by Muslims 34.22 per cent, Christians 3.74 per cent, Sikhs 0.07 per cent, Buddhists 0.18 per cent, Jains 0.08 per cent, and other religions 0.09 per cent. As many as 0.16 per cent of the population did not state any religion.

While the language data of 2011 Census are still awaited, the language data of Census 2001 estimated the population of Assamese speakers at 48.80 per cent followed by Bengalis at 27.54 per cent, Bodo 4.86 per cent, Karbi 1.52 per cent, Mising 1.94 per cent, Rabha 0.49 per cent, Dimasa 0.41 and Tiwas 0.10 per cent.

Stating that Assam’s average family size is 5.5, which is above the national average, the draft policy proposes that the “government may legislate legal provision to bar people with more than two children to take part in panchayat and municipal body elections” and may consider legislating similar legal provision for election/nomination to other statutory bodies and committees. In addition to the two-child norm, the government may, in aid of creating an educated society and population structure, put minimum educational qualifications as eligibility criteria for contesting elections to panchayats and urban local bodies, the policy states. Besides, the government seeks to encourage “self-help groups having members with two children each only” by giving special incentives in the form of grants by the government.

Human development report

The Assam Human Development Report (AHDR), 2014, states that the total fertility rate in Assam has shown a gradual decline over the years. “The [Sample Registration System] SRS (2013) data show that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in the State is at par with the national level, the TFR for rural (2.4) and urban (1.5) areas in the State is lower than the all India figure for rural (2.5) and urban (1.8) areas. This decline in the fertility rate is also a contributory reason for a decrease in the share of the child population in the State,” says the report titled “Managing Diversities, Achieving Human Development” prepared by the Guwahati-based think tank OKD Institute of Social Change and Development and the New Delhi-based Institute for Human Development. The report states that the TFR tends to be on a higher side in rural areas, particularly in the char areas (2.8) and among Muslims (2.9).

The draft population policy states: “Existence of religious prejudices and conservative values against family planning is high among some communities. Only a tiny fraction of men opt to have vasectomies. Male sterilisation is viewed as culturally unacceptable among most of the communities.” It underlines the need to maintain the “current declining trends in fertility so as to achieve a stable population size at least by the middle of the 21st century” and adds that “although there is a decline in the decadal growth of population, the rate of increase of 17.07 is at an unsustainable level”.

Poverty estimates of the HDR Survey 2013, on the basis of which the AHDR 2014 was compiled, reveal that poverty is the highest in the hill areas (44.7 per cent), followed by the char areas (42.6 per cent) and the tea garden areas (37.6 per cent). “Besides, poverty is also found to be higher among religious minorities, that is Christians and Muslims compared to Hindus,” the HDR report states. Poverty is also higher among S.Ts (40.5 per cent), S.Cs (37.5 per cent) and OBCs (36.5 per cent) than among other households (36 per cent).

The HDR survey has revealed that about 65 per cent of the rural households do not possess any agricultural asset such as ploughs, bullock carts or farm equipment and that about 85.5 per cent of the rural households do not possess any non-agricultural asset such as handloom or powerloom. “Among the spatial diversity categories, asset poverty is especially acute in the char blocks, and multi-diversity blocks,” it adds. The HDR survey data show that 66 per cent of the households in the tea garden areas do not possess any agricultural asset, 85.3 per cent do not possess any household appliances, 41.9 per cent have no financial asset and 81.1 per cent have no insurance cover.

The draft population policy has not spelt out how the government proposes to address the issue of asset poverty of families with more than two children in the event of denial of benefits under government-employment generation schemes according to the two-child norm.

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