When the Haryana Government legislated (Haryana Panchayat Raj Act, 1944) that the candidate for the posts of sarpanch and upasarpanch should not have more than two children, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision, there was widespread approval from the urban middle class. However, with respect to the court, the idea is undemocratic to say the least. India’s population is undoubtedly growing at an alarming rate, and is expected to overtake that of China—the most populous country now—in a couple of decades. Also true is the fact that China has managed to check the growth of its Population by adopting several incentives and more significantly, disincentives. But then, as many of our liberals never fail to Point out when anyone speaks of speedy economic reforms and change in labour laws, China as a totalitarian state can accomplish many things that we, as a democracy, cannot. So, if it is ‘go slowly, taking the people with you policy’ for economic reforms, why and how are draconian methods to be applied in the sensitive issue of limiting the family size? China had no compunction about Tiananmen; will such an episode be accepted in India without protest? There appears to be a subtle play of double standards here. The problem with the decision to impose the two-child norm is that it has not taken into consideration several factors that impinge on the population issue.
Why impose it only on the prospective members of Panchayati Raj, and then only on candidates for political posts? They are expected to set examples to the people, say the supporters of the decision. Of course, to an extent political leaders are role models for some people; probably that is why there is such rampant corruption and disregard for the rule of law; so, by the same token why not have a drastic law to curtail such criminality? It is most unlikely. However, that sarpanchs and upsarpanchs with limited families will encourage family planning. As it is, given the casteclass-ridden society. We have all over India and especially in rural areas, the poor are even more likely than before to be left out of the Panchayat system with this norm in place. Ironically, the decision is going to cut at the very idea behind the Panchayati Raj sought to be established— empowernment of the downtrodden section.
Has anybody thought about the women standing for election in the panchayati system? Seats have been reserved for them, but how many of them will be able to qualify for the two-child norm? Unfortunately in India, even educated women with so-called economic independence have little say in family size, so the less said about the poor rural women the better. The decision does not seem to take into consideration the purpose behind the Panchayati Raj system, or in fact any political democratic ruling system. The purpose is good governance, efficient use of funds for the welfare of the people and implementation of development projects at the grass-roots level. The people who are at the helm entrusted with the task of trying and achieving these goals should be judged for their ability, their human approach, their incorruptibility, their broad vision, and not by the rather irrelevant norms of having no more than two children. Ability to govern and serve for social welfare goals is not necessarily linked to having a small family. The decision could keep the poorer sections out of the race, because everywhere it is the better-off, also generally more educated, who, almost as a corollary, have fewer children.
Why do the poor tend to have more children? Expert opinion has it that the poor do not know how many of their children will survive. Nor are the poor well aware of contraceptive methods or how to use them. At the root of our burgeoning population is the indifferent, if not non-existent health care service. Neither maternal nor child health care has got the importance it deserves in this country. It is easily seen that China besides its totalitarian system, also has a good health care system in place.
So do most developing countries that have achieved a modicum of success in limiting population growth. Nor has education, the other important impetus behind limiting family size, been spread to all sections of the country’s population. It is the combined effect of education and health care facilities that will make people aware of the benefits of a small family and make them strive towards that goal, knowing that their children will not fall prey to disease and ill health. Thinking of limiting family size in isolation indicates a blinkered view. Limiting family size is a matter closely linked with socio-economic factors that cannot be changed at will or very fast. Besides the health and education infrastructures, the cultural traditions of this country have deep roots, and in that culture the son has a place that is very difficult to dislodge. Furthermore, no effort has been made to remove cultural deadwood from the minds of the people. Neither the media nor the political leadership has put in a concerted effort to reinforce the equality of men and women that merely exists on Paper guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
Educational institutions and textbooks, on the other hand,, reinforce retrograde concepts of women’s secondary role in society, emphasising their ‘home-making’ image and the need for humility and respect for men’s decisions. Deep-rooted beliefs may be prejudices, have never been tackled with the reformist zeal they require. The ability to think independently and fearlessly, the spirit of questioning that is basic to positive social change, and the courage to act against the mediocre tide are not encouraged; in fact, they are suppressed in men and women alike. In the circumstances, the desire for a son is almost universal. The son is seen, even in the light of increasing evidence to the contrary in today’s social situation, as a support in old age. More deep-rooted is the conviction, at least among Hindus, that the last rites must be performed by the son in order that one may gain moksha.
Compulsion to limit the family has resulted, even among the so-called educated middle classes, in female infanticide and foeticide. Technology—the ultrasound facility—is unscrupulously used to identify the gender of the unborn child and kill it off if it is female. This is specifically so if the firstborn is a girl. Two children are ideal, but one, at least, must be a son. The government has a law in place providing for punishment for such acts, but looking at the problem as separate from the population control is rather unrealistic.
Social attitudes are so closely linked with concepts of family to bring in a law for compulsorily limiting family size. Population can be controlled but it takes place over time. The change can be speeded up with better education, widespread and prompt delivery of health care services, and constant efforts at building up an awareness of religious superstitions which had best be left aside. Decisions such as prescribing two-child norm for political candidates are cosmetic efforts that are more likely to damage the policy and governance than encourage the small family norm among the people.