The “too many, too little” myth

Supreme Court judgement on two-child norm

Amita Bhaduri

THE Supreme Court of India has recently (12.10.2004) upheld the decision to disqualify a member of panchayat in Haryana, for violating the two-child norm. Although the norm is not legally binding, the court still contended that it was “in the national interest to check population growth” and that it included the use of legislative disincentives. At present six states including Haryana, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have made the two-child norm mandatory for all panchayat members. Hundreds of Panchayat members have been removed from their posts in these states because they failed to comply with the two-child norm. Many women have also been forced to step down despite having a very limited say in matters of reproductive choice. Indeed, the two-child norm has been a clever way of defusing the potentially empowering impact of reservation for women in the panchayats.

In an attempt to cover up the birth of the third child panchayat members are now reportedly resorting to sending their pregnant wives away for two-three years, divorce, alleging infidelity, getting their third child adopted, producing fake birth certificates and increased sex selective abortions. Several states have gone to the extent of laying down a diktat that government jobs too would be denied to people who have more than two children. Those already in service would not be promoted for five years if they opted to have a third child. This rule is already being implemented in Rajasthan; other state governments including Maharashtra, Delhi and Gujarat are eager to introduce it.

The Supreme Court ruling is clearly not in line with the National Population Policy, 2000 and the government has gone on the defensive with the Central Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss stating that imposing two-child norm “constitutes a violation of fundamental rights”. While he ruled out the idea of incorporating any element of coercion into the National Population Policy, the government’s position remains dubious. On the other hand the BJP has demanded that the Centre strictly implement the two-child norm equally across all communities to arrest the ‘skewed’ population growth rate. The obnoxious statement by Venkiah Naidu implying a surgical solution to the ‘Muslim population’ is in step with the BJP’s communal agenda.

In recent weeks women rights groups have joined the opposition to the two-child norm. But their opposition remains mostly limited to the upholding of women’s reproductive rights in isolation from qualitative economic and political changes. In fact, several state led and international agencies are already pushing forward various methods of fertility control, under the guise of broadening women’s reproductive rights and choices without making any substantial improvements in their lives. The Reproductive and Child Health (RCH) programme in our country focuses on demographic targets rather than girl’s education. In other words, women continue to be treated as reproductive agents and not political or economic agents in their own right, subsumed under the objectives of population control policies designed to curb the fertility of the poor.

There are yet others who have gone beyond the demand for access to reproductive rights and have said that women if given proper access to education, health care and social opportunity will have fewer children. The civil rights groups on the other hand, have variously called the two-child norm as an attack on individual freedom and fundamental rights, a dehumanising programme that violates human reproductive, rights and of being ‘morally wrong’. They point that the norm is discriminatory vis-a-vis the poor, dalits, tribal groups and minorities. They insist that the population problem can be handled in more sensitive and sensible ways and that the aim should be population stabilisation and not population control.

The Supreme Court judgement is in fact reminiscent of a Malthusian ahistorical emphasis on population (stabilisation) to explain all social, economic and political problems. More than anything else, it seems like a restatement of the ‘population time-bomb’ hysteria, originally fathered by Malthus, an English clergyman of the 18th century, and fuelled more recently by environmentalist Paul Ehrlich in 1970s. Malthus had blamed social unrest and crime of the industrial revolution on the excessive breeding of the ‘underclasses’, and Ehrlich’s followers, argue that population control is the solution to global poverty, famine, a declining environment and deteriorating standards of public health. Marx’s critique of the Malthusian principle of population is based on the principle of the reserve army of labour or relative surplus population, which he elaborates in the course of his analysis of the general law of capital accumulation. An effect of capital accumulation is that the demand for labour results in the inevitable production of a reserve army of labour. According to Marx, there was need to examine population historically, as each mode of production has its own laws of population. Today’s problems have to be understood as effects of uneven global capitalist development and not as natural laws of population as the Supreme Court judgement insinuates. Or is the Supreme Court judgement the beginning of a renewed rhetoric to rationalize the extermination of the poor?