While Modi talked about India’s demographic dividend in his first term, in his second term he has realised that though a large population may not be a bad thing, it has to contribute to the country’s growth
Eyebrows were raised when Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed concern about the population explosion in the country in his recent Independence Day speech. There was a feeling of surprise that the Prime Minister chose to bring up an issue that has been a ‘No- No’ for many politicians from the days of Emergency when the Indira Gandhi government used coercive population control measures. Her Family Planning programme received widespread condemnation and effectively never realized its purpose. Later the ministry’s name was changed to Family Welfare.
India’s population is 1.34 billion, which is nearly a four-fold increase since Independence. Modi has reasons for concern as according to the World Population Prospects 2019 of the United Nations, India is expected to add nearly 273 million people between 2019 and 2050. Inevitably, with these figures, “India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country around 2027”, the report said. The biggest challenge for India is its unpreparedness to accommodate such a huge population. Looking at these figures, “The time has now come that we should take such challenges ahead,” Modi said.
Interestingly, while Modi talked about India’s demographic dividend in his first term, in his second term he has realised that though a large population by itself may not be a bad thing, it has to contribute to the growth of the country. This needs to be supported by capital, technology and infrastructure, as well as skills. That is why the Prime Minister is now talking of education as a means of both moderating the rising population and making it productive.
The country is already facing an acute drinking water crisis, garbage disposal and sewage treatment problems, inadequate rainfall, climate change, increased levels of pollution, high infant and child mortality rate and poor standard of living in the economically weaker sections.
The Prime Minister’s speech was mainly targeted towards these poorer sections of society and his appeal to them for keeping the family small was aimed at improving their standard of living.
He is aware that the poor are missing out on opportunities to climb up the economic and social ladder because they have too many mouths to feed. Making it a nationalistic issue, he said, “Those who follow the policy of a small family also contribute to the development of the nation; it is also a form of patriotism.”
Why did Modi talk of population explosion now? It obviously stems from the fact that his hands are strengthened after the massive mandate he received in the 2019 polls.
Politically, Modi is much stronger today, while the Opposition is weak like never before. Add to that the Prime Minister’s recent success in Parliament in getting controversial Bills like Triple Talaq and abrogation of Article 370 pertaining to the special status of Jammu and Kashmir passed, despite being in a minority in the Rajya Sabha.
Second, the Indian Right-wing, including the BJP, has always expressed concerns about the increasing minority population. They feel that the Muslims are trying to overtake Hindus in the country by multiplying fast. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, during his annual Dussehra address some time ago, noted, “We need to rise above vote bank politics to formulate a holistic approach, equally applicable to all citizens, towards the population policy.”
In Parliament too, BJP members have raised this issue. Recently Rakesh Sinha, a BJP Member of Parliament, introduced a Private Member’s Bill to regulate population. Earlier, another BJP member Sanjeev Balyan, who is now a minister, had also introduced another Bill with the backing of 124 members.
The late BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee too had made such an attempt in 2000 by bringing a forward-looking National Population Policy. However, it made the two-child norm a voluntary commitment for individuals. The Modi Government has also followed the same approach that the family planning programme in India is target-free and voluntary in nature.
Modi’s speech has triggered speculation that a mild interventionist population policy is not far off. It is a very sensitive issue both at the state level as well as the religious level.
The North-South divide and the Hindu-Muslim divide are the two issues that raise their heads whenever the spotlight is on population control. While the southern states feel that their great success in bringing down the population is costing them in terms of resources devolved from the Centre, the Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has claimed this week that it is a social reform.
The Prime Minister is not one to waste words and he has used the Independence Day speech to prepare the country for population regulation, going forward. There is an urgent need to aggressively push concepts like the two-child policy, child spacing, increased use of contraceptives and voluntary sterilisation. The two-child norm should be made a uniform criterion for government jobs, getting aid and subsidies and other benefits. Perhaps incentives and disincentives might work better in containing the size of the family. The health ministry is already implementing many of these schemes, but much more will be needed to create awareness and to make an impact in the long run.
As India aspires to become a major economic power, it’s time to define whether a growing population is an opportunity or a danger.
(The writer is a senior journalist)