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Population Puzzle

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The draft of UP’s proposed law on population control, as well as its new population policy for 2021-30, released on the occasion of World Population Day, have a slew of measures to limit the size of families so that development can be speeded up. Political opponents of CM Yogi Adityanath are seeing it as a gimmick before elections to polarise politics in the background of the general belief that these measures are targeted against the Muslims. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, both, the BJP and the ‘secular’ parties are happy with this perception as long as the targeted communities vote along expected lines. At the same time, though, the larger question of the impact of uncontrolled population growth on the environment, natural resources, development and quality of life have an increasing relevance in present times.

China adopted and strictly enforced the one child policy, which did play a role in its phenomenal economic growth. However, it is already beginning to experience the negative repercussions of a declining youth population and an increase in the number of elderly. There simply will not be enough workers available to keep the economy going. As a result, the curbs are being relaxed while China considers options to keep its growth on the desired track. Even in India, sections of society – particularly the upper middle class – are also experiencing a similar impact of having just one or two children.

It is, therefore, advisable that a policy on population growth keep the actual data in mind, which would be better revealed following the coming census. Many reports suggest that there are many communities and regions in India where the fertility rate has dropped below the replacement level of 2.1. India, overall, is also approaching the replacement level. It may be recalled that, after the spectacular failure of the Sanjay Gandhi initiated model of population control during the Emergency, governments lost the motivation to enforce the policy. Instead, softer measures were adopted such as popularising contraception and increasing the gap between children. Experts argued that the visible impact of smaller families on quality of life would do much more to encourage family planning than the draconian approach.

There are so many variables and so much at stake that it would be wise to tread carefully. The incentives and disincentives approach being planned by some of the BJP governments will need to be complemented by transformations in the agrarian and industrial economies. Otherwise the requirement of low cost labour will be met by illegal immigration from neighbouring countries, basically defeating the purpose of the policy. Preparations also need to be made for the consequent urbanisation of the population. Merely a one-sided approach will not do if the right outcomes are to be achieved.