Among a slew of controversial draft legislation introduced by Lakshadweep administrator Praful Khoda Patel, which have led to widespread protests in the archipelago, is the Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021.
The draft regulation – unveiled on 25 February earlier this year – proposes to disqualify any person with more than two children from contesting panchayat elections. Neither can a person with more than two children be a member of a gram panchayat or continue as such.
However, the regulation will not apply to those who already have more than two children, before the regulation comes into effect. They will still be eligible to contest, provided they do not have further children.
The regulation, of course, still needs to be ratified by the Union Home Ministry and the Union Cabinet before it becomes law.
But this is the last thing that Lakshadweep needs – and here’s why.
Lakshadweep’s Demography, Declining Population Growth and Fertility Rates
Lakshadweep has a population of 64,473 people. This constitutes about 0.01 percent of India’s population. Incidentally, more than 93 percent of the population is Muslim and indigenous. This entire indigenous population is classified under Scheduled Tribes, or the ST category.
There are at least two striking things here. One, the literacy rate of Lakshadweep is over 92 percent against the national average of 74 percent, according to Census 2011. Two, Lakshadweep has a remarkably healthy sex ratio of 1,187 females for 1,000 males, according to the 2019-20 National Health and Family Survey (NFHS-5), a stark contrast to the national picture.
An analysis of the Census data on population in Lakshadweep confirms a declining trend in its growth rate. The decadal growth rate during 2001-2011 was recorded at 6.3 percent as against 17.19 percent over the period 1991-2001.
Lakshadweep has a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 1.4, which is far below the national average of 2.2 (Sample Registration System, 2018).
Coercive Population Control Policies Don’t Work
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court to counter a petition seeking implementation of two-child norm to check the country’s population in December 2020, the Union Ministry for Health and Family Welfare had said:
“International experience shows that any coercion to have a certain number of children is counter-productive and leads to demographic distortions.”
“India’s TFR is already down substantially to 2.2 as per the 2018 Sample Registration System... from 3.2 in 2000 when the National Population Policy was adopted. The Family Welfare Programme is voluntary in nature, which enables couples to decide the size of their family and adopt the family planning methods best suited to them, according to their choice, without any compulsion,” the ministry noted.
Moreover, even for states which have high fertility rates, there is no evidence that a two-child policy is effective.
Similar policies in other states have failed to bring down the fertility rates to the desired level. A five-state study by Nirmala Buch, a former senior IAS officer, revealed that such a policy was counter-productive in the states that adopted it.
These states witnessed a rise in sex-selective and unsafe abortions; men divorced their wives to run for local body elections, and families gave up children for adoption to avoid disqualification.
Stringent population control measures could potentially lead to an increase in sex selective practices, given the strong son-preference in India.
China, which had enforced a one-child policy had to eventually abandon it, after finding itself in the midst of a population crisis and a very undesirable and abnormally high male-to-female sex ratio.
In fact, this has forced the Chinese government to allow each couple to have up to three children, marking the end of a strict two-child policy in a recent development.
Invest in Social Development, Health and Education
The declining trend in TFR is likely to lead to an ageing population and scarcity of individuals in the workforce in Lakshadweep. Subsequently, this would result in an increased burden of non-communicable diseases, requiring financial expenditures and policies to support the elderly and address their healthcare needs.
Instead of imposing stringent population control measures, Lakshadweep needs to do very different things. It must take steps to curtail further reduction in TFR and to provide social service benefits, such as paid maternity leaves and better childcare facilities to families that have additional children.
The focus of policymakers should be on meeting the existing high unmet need for family planning in the Union Territory.
In Lakshadweep, 12.3 percent of currently married women in the 15-49 age group wish to delay or avoid pregnancy but do not have the agency or access to contraceptives, placing them at grave risk of death or disability during pregnancy and childbirth. This, especially where the quality of care is inadequate.
Lessons and Looking Ahead
We must never forget the strong linkages between social development, health status and population stabilisation.
States and governments, in India and globally, that have ensured better access to quality health services and invested in education of girls have helped stabilise population and manage fertility issues.
The Lakshadweep administration should prioritise investments in overall social development, health and education with a focus on gender equity, economic development and access to family planning services.
Providing better access and quality of healthcare for young people will not only lead to improved health, but will also visibly improve educational outcomes and increase productivity and workforce participation.
India must endeavour to learn from Lakshadweep on what it is doing right.
Coercive two-child policies, which we have seen being launched in other states too, unfortunately come bundled with other gender-unfriendly policies and mindsets that disproportionately impact women.
Implementing those in Lakshadweep or in other parts of our country will only push India’s hard-earned progress back by many years. We cannot afford to let that happen.
Lakshadweep – and India – must continue to look ahead. That will only be possible if women and girls have the agency and autonomy to take their own decisions and live fulfilling lives.
It is only then that social and developmental goals will be met, making the 21st century truly India’s century.
(The author is the Executive Director of the national NGO Population Foundation of India and a public health expert. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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