Do we really need this Norm?

According to NFHS-3 (2005-06), most Indian states including some high fertility north India states have reached replacement level of desired/ wanted fertility rate. Thus, most people in India do not wish to have more than two children, but the population is growing due to momentum effect and unwanted fertility. It is believed that fertility is influenced by variety of factors like education, media, economic changes, urbanisation, infant and maternal mortality rate, etc (Visaria and Visaria 2003). By now, there is a much wider consensus on the need to avoid authoritarian intervention in intimate and personal matters like reproductive behaviour (Sen 1995).

India’s National Population Policy, 2000 advocates ‘small family norm’ without prescribing any number. The ideal ‘small family norm is supposed to be set voluntarily by each couple, considering all pros and cons in the context of the circumstances facing them. The State is responsible for creating favourable conditions towards such a choice, and not to prescribe or impose a norm of one, two or three. There is, of course, some apparent inconsistency or ambivalence in government policy referring to some promotional measures which prescribe two child conditionality. Such distortions in laws and policies or programmes need to be set right.
Justifying a coercive one or two-child norm policy on a perceived benefit of a better quality of life or greater share of resources in a smaller family is too naive, simplistic, mechanistic and smacks of an authoritarian, elitist and neo-Malthusian mind set. An informed and voluntary choice for a one or a two-child family is a reproductive choice and a right. Such a decision is right based. Choice of a family size is dependent on many factors like infant and child mortality, son preference, income opportunities, educational level, access to health care, family planning products and services, etc. Better quality of life and sharing of resources intra or inter family is dependent more on the structure and pattern of consumption, income, ownership and access, as well as equity.
One or two-child norm as a policy prescription by government is not at all in the national interest. It distorts and subverts democracy, fundamental rights and is disempowering, particularly of women, the poor and the marginalised. It exasperates and accentuates skewed sex ratio at birth, as China’s one-child policy has shown during the last 30 years.
Family planning has to be empowering, co-operative and not ‘authoritarian’ and should be implemented with a rights-based, gender-sensitive and holistic manner, integrated within ‘reproductive health’ and comprehensive primary health care. There is a need to understand the population issue in proper perspective of ‘rights’ and ‘gender sensitivity’.
Our case studies show the experiences of Panchayat representatives, the practices adopted to circumvent the law and the anxiety and frustration of the affected persons who are caught in the complexity of the new law and the manipulations of their political opponents. Instances of sex selection tests, abortion of female foetus and completion of the pregnancy where the foetus was rightly or wrongly identified as male show the continuing prevalence of strong son preference and the potential of this law to further worsening of the adverse child sex ratio.
The assumption was that this norm would check the high population growth rate which, in turn, would lead to improved development indicators and a better quality of life for the citizens of India. It was incorporated in the Panchayat related laws in different states with the assumption that Panchayat leaders with two children would serve as role models for the rest of the community.
The background characteristics of the five states show that the two child norm as a condition for Panchayats posts cannot be necessary for development and population stabilisation.
In gender related data four states emerge with concerns regarding the status of women either due to the high literacy gap between men and women or even the more disquieting fact of declining child sex ratio. Given these circumstances the risk of the already precarious status of women being adversely affected through the application of the coercive law of the norm is high.
An examination of the background information relating to population, development and women’s status indicate that the application of the norm has the potential to harm the status of women or is unnecessary in all the five states even if it is assumed that such a norm enforced by law can be effective in influencing fertility decisions.
The two child norm has an adverse impact on the status of women. Women face double edged challenge – decision making on reproduction has not been in women’s hands and yet they suffer directly (as candidates) or indirectly (as spouse of those disqualified) the consequences of implementation of the norm.
A number of disquieting trends were visible in the practices used to meet the conditionalities of the law without changes in the decision about the family size and without moving away from the strong son preference. Overall, a large proportion (76 percent) of the disqualified representatives were practising contraception (53 percent permanent methods and 23 percent others). This had little to do with their preference of family size. The desire for a small family existed independent of this law, but when it was a choice between leadership position and family size, especially if it pertained to a son, the desire for a child won in many cases.
The examination of state level data from Haryana showed that nearly three-fourths of all disqualifications were because of the two-child norm. Studies of Panchayats and women’s presence and experience in the Panchayats have shown a large entry of the poor, even illiterate and younger women.
The 73rd Amendment is aimed at providing women and Dalits and younger persons an opportunity to participate in politics and governance. There was evidence of women getting discouraged in view of long-drawn-out court cases, inquiries and mental trauma resulting from the dilemma between continuing in the post and a simultaneous desire and family pressure for a son or a larger family.
The experience shows the potential of using the two-child norm to harass opponents. There was also an indication that the norm could be circumvented and evaded through manipulations which are easier for those with political or financial clout. The process of complains, inquiry and disqualification is a continuing process encroaching upon the resources of the competent authorities and also distracting the aggrieved persons from more productive development work.
The three states of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which recorded relatively high rates of population growth during 1971-91, drafted their population policies in the late 1990swith the assistance of Futures Group International before theNPP2000 was approved by the National Development Council. They set goals to lower fertility to replacement level or to nearly half the prevailing level in the shortest span of 10 to 15 years. In order to do so, these states, along with Haryana and Orissa, passed laws to prospectively debar from holding office those elected representatives to Panchayati raj institutions (PRI) or local self-government bodies, who do not adopt the two-child norm. It was realised that given the small number of elected representatives, imposing such a norm on them was most unlikely to bring a reduction in the fertility level of the state as a whole. However, the justification for this was sought in the underlying rationale that community members would perceive the elected representatives as “role models”. It has been argued that if an elected “representative accepts and advocates small family norm, it would have great impact on others and they are more likely to follow this norm”.

Would adoption of a two-child norm by a handful of elected representatives at the lowest level restrict “explosion” even by demonstration for others to follow? Some have indeed argued that elected members are perceived as role models and any practice accepted by them is likely to be followed by other members of the community. However, the limited evidence that we have collected indicates that even at the village level, caste and class and also gender politics dominate. In the power game, those who belong to the backward communities offer no role model either to the members of the higher castes or to those who are their own kith and kin. We saw no evidence at all of any one even mentioning that the elected members are their role models for practicing the small family norm [Bisaria 2006].
There is an urgent need to understand how population grows and stabilises. Since the 1970s, there has been a slow but steady decline in the total fertility rate in India, or the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime, from around six to almost half the number or three. This clearly indicates that a transition from a high fertility (and mortality) regime to low fertility is very much underway. However, the decline is recent and the history of high fertility has resulted in a young population or age structure that would lead to population growth for several decades to come. There is a built-in growth momentum due to the young age structure of the population.
The imposition of the two-child norm impinges on basic human rights. It affects adversely precisely those sections of society –women, members of scheduled castes and tribes, marginalised and the poor – who need to assert their right to political participation. They are the ones who contest elections to PRIs. The NHRC Declaration (2003) noted that “…the propagation of a two-child norm and coercion or manipulation of individual fertility decisions through the use of incentives and disincentives violate the principle of voluntary informed choice and the human rights of the people, particularly the rights of the child”. Thus, the imposition is also not just.
The imposition of a two-child norm in reality becomes anti-women in more than one way. With the passing of the 73rdconstitutional amendment, 33 percent of all Panchayat seats are reserved for women. Having fought for this representation in the political process at the local level for several decades, the two-child norm disqualifies those elected women members who give birth to a third or higher order child after a certain stipulated period. Women are affected because even those who are elected to local bodies have little or no say in when they marry and whether, when or how many children they have [Hariharan 2003]. In addition, women are also adversely affected because the elected husbands, in order to retain their seats, can resort to measures such as abandoning the wife, denying having fathered the child, deserting the pregnant wife, asking the wife to undergo an abortion (especially if the foetus is of a girl).If the woman is the elected representative and becomes pregnant with a male foetus, then her position can be sacrificed in favour of a son; her having to step down is of little consequence to the family since she would produce a male heir. All these practices are anti-woman and therefore the imposition of the norm should also be examined from the perspective of how it would impact women.
There is need for a wider debate on the rationale of the two-child norm. The issues need to be debated in the context of grass roots reality, the equity-oriented focus of the Indian Constitution and the adverse and demeaning practices for women resulting from the implementation of this norm.
There is need to withdraw/impose a moratorium on the two-child norm law. This norm imposed by a law must be withdrawn in the interest of women and weaker sections, their participation in grass roots institutions and in view of the negative implications for women and girl children seen in the experiences of those affected by this law. There is also no evidence that it has the impact on fertility decisions assumed in introducing it.
As articulated in the ICDP Programme of Action, in the long run informed choice will work and not incentives and disincentives. Over the past century, many governments have experimented with schemes including specific incentives and disincentives, in order to lower the rate of fertility. Most such schemes have had only marginal impact on fertility and, in some cases, have been counter-productive. The principle of informed free choice is essential to the long-term success of the family planning programmes. Any form of coercion has no part to play. – ICPD Programme of Action (POA 7.12), 1994.
The Cairo Declaration on population and development seeks a human-centred approach to population issues with a special emphasis on the reproductive health of women.

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