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Assam’s Population Policy, 2017

Overstated Numbers andUnderlying Agendas

Akhil Ranjan Dutta (akhilranjangu@gmail.com) teaches at Gauhati University, Guwahati.

Assam’s 2017 Population and Women Empowerment Policy claims to have as its focusthe inclusive and sustainablewell-being of its population, rather than population control. However, it displays an overriding concern with population “explosion,” exaggerates the actual increase in numbers, and is suggestive of a targeted approach.

The Assam government adopted the Population and Women Empowerment Policy of Assam (PWEPA) on 15 September 2017, within six months of publication of its draft population policy in March 2017. Both the draft population policy and its subsequent incarnation as PWEPA primarily aim to curb the “exponentially expanding population” in the state. One of the authors of the draft population policy regrets that

a section has reduced the draft to a mere population control policy, and has engaged in making uninformed comments about it! I re-emphasise that it’s not only a population control instrument, but a population policy, the scope of which is much broader. The latter includes, besides others, strong steps towards expansion of health and education infrastructure in the state. (Sharma 2017)

The 14-page draft policy, made available for public comment on 27 March 2017, discusses all the challenges confronted by the population—from poverty and illiteracy to flood, erosion and climate change—that have contributed to the recent rise in population and decline in the quality of life in Assam. 

This relatively short draft refers to the United Nations’ Programme of Action on Population Policy, which emphasises “deve­lopment planning in order to promote social justice and to eradicate poverty through sustained economic growth in the context of sustainable development” (Department of Health and Family Welfare 2017a: 1). The authors have also referred to the National Population Policy (NPP), 2000 which, in the long term, aims “to achieve a stable population by 2045 at a level consistent with the requirements of sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental protection” (Department of Health and Family Welfare 2017a: 2). These two important references make clear that the draft population policy of the Government of Assam is not only about population control, but also about the inclusive and sustainable well-being of the population, which, in the long term, results in population stabilisation. The draft policy has also focused on demographic and development complications, highlighting issues such as child marriage, livelihood constraints, unemployment, illiteracy, high infant mortality rates (IMR) and maternal mortality rate (MMR), and the problems confronted by particular spatial and social communities. The draft policy echoes the concerns of the NPP, which the authors consider a progressive policy. The proposed goals and strategies of the draft policy aim to improve the quality of life, not just control population.

These broad concerns of the draft policy have been strengthened through the adoption of the PWEPA, 2017. One major feature of this policy, as Assam’s Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Himanta Biswa Sarma points out,

has been the recognition that women’sempowerment is core to the success of any population policy and for the achievement of sustainable development. The draft policy was therefore revised to incorporate many features which directly or indirectly contribute to empowerment of women, and thereafter it has been accordingly renamed as Draft Population and Women Empowerment Policy of Assam. (Sarma 2017)

Despite such a comprehensive outlook, the overriding concern of the draft policy and the PWEPA has been to prevent population “explosion” in the state. This is evident from the very first paragraph of the official notification of the Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Assam (27 March 2017):

As per 2011 census reports, the population of Assam increased to 3.12 crores from 2.66 crores in 2001. The continuous growth of the state’s population not only poses a severe strain on the natural resources and environment but also hinders the efforts of the government to improve the quality of life of its people.

While this is a genuine concern, the exaggeration of the actual increase in numbers in the draft points to population control as the primary objective. The actual decadal growth of population in Assam during 2001–11 was 46 lakh, but the draft asserts that the “state witnessed an increase of almost 1 crore population in the last decade” (Department of Health and Family Welfare 2017a: 4). An increase of 46 lakh can in no way be termed “almost 1 crore,” especially when the total population of the state is 3.12 crore. This unconvincing exaggeration suggests that the spectre of population growth haunts the government. This hyperbole is made even more damaging by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s obsession with the ostensible explosion of population of certain communities. In fact, the political narratives being built by the state government and its exaggerations have reduced the draft population policy to a population control policy. Although the PWEPA attempts to moderate this claim by deleting the “almost 1 crore,” statement, anxiety about the population growth rate is explicit here too. The government resolution on PWEPA states:

whereas, with limited natural resources at its disposal, the state of Assam cannot afford the continuation of its rapid population growth. Alarmingly high incidence of infant mortality rate (IMR) and maternal mortality ratio (MMR) is amongst the greatest concerns of Government of Assam which cannot be curbed with exponentially expanding population. (Sarma 2017)

Let us look at a few examples thatsubstantiate the covert intentions of the incumbent regime.

In January 2017, the Struggle for Hindu Existence website reported that “Assam is planning a population policy to curb the unabated Muslim growth in the state.” It went on to say that out of 27 districts of Assam, nine had been declared Muslim-majority districts. Besides, the Muslim population was reported to have challenged Hindu numbers in three other districts as well. The report categorically states:

Now, in its … significant move to end thealleged Muslim appeasement in Indian politics, the Assam government is finding a process to put a control upon Muslim population in the mainstream life. Like China, the concerned government is thinking its own population control policy [sic] so that the unchecked growth of population can’t make a hindrance to the economic planning of Assam [in] any way. (Brahmachari 2017)

The same report mentions that the government was contemplating a population control policy “where more than two children may disqualify for any government help or even losing government job.” It adds that a bill likely to be introduced in the March 2017 budget session “also includes the provision of disqualification for being a candidate for contesting in any election whether it is a seat of gram panchayat, municipal bodies or stateassembly” (Brahmachari 2017).

Targeting Muslims?

The BJP government at the centre and in Assam has not concealed its fears of a rapid increase in the Muslim population in the state. The union government’s move to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, has also been justified as preventing Assam from becoming a Muslim-majority state. Sarma asserted in October 2016:

Hindus constitute about 68% of the state’s population. Considering the rapid population growth, particularly among immigrant Muslims, the community is all set to become a majority in the state. Under such circumstances, granting citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will prevent Assam from becoming a Muslim-dominated state. (Rahman 2016)

Sarma has been the proponent of a “rainbow alliance,” comprising the Assamese Hindus, Bengali Hindus and indigenous Muslims, which would “save Assam from becoming an immigrant Muslim-dominated state” (Rahman 2016). The population policy cannot be delinked from this dominant political discourse.

On 9 April 2017, in a Facebook update at 9.55 pm, Sarma wrote:

Assam’s new draft population policy: population control remains one of the most challenging tasks before #Assam today. With limited natural resources at its disposal, Assam cannot afford the continuation of its rapid population growth. So, as announced in the budget, a draft population policy has been prepared which has been put up for stakeholders’ consultations.

Tellingly, the post emphasised the two-child norm. The Indian Express (2017) headline for the report on the draft population policy was “Assam: No Govt Job for Those with More Than 2 Children, Says Draft Population Policy.” It quoted Sarma as saying: “This is a draft population policy. We have suggested that people having more than two children will not be eligible for any government jobs.” The minister further noted,

For employment generation schemes like giving tractors, offering homes and other government benefits, this two-children norm will be applicable. Besides, all elections such as panchayats, municipal bodies and autonomous councils held under the state election commission will also have this norm for candidates. (Indian Express 2017)

Most of these concerns have now been accommodated in the PWEPA. In an interview to local television channel DY 365 on 19 September 2017, Sarma said that he would not call it a targeted policy. However, he made it clear that the policy targets 11 particular districts in the state that have recorded a sharp increase in population. Without naming the community, he pointed out that the rise has been due to a particular community—Muslims of East Bengal origin—and that this has had an adverse impact on the demographic composition of the state. This articulation is in tune with the BJP’s electoral campaign in Assam, which centred around Jati, Mati, and Bheti (nationality, land and hearth) and projected Muslims from East Bengal as a threat to the indigenous people of Assam.

This rhetoric, and the public utterances of the state health minister, make theintentions of the government’s population policy very clear. This narrative negates the draft policy’s avowal that a population policy in today’s context

has to take into account not only factors like food security, maternal and child health, ageing, urbanisation and migration, but also emerging development challenges, such as financial and economic issues (volatile energy situation, food prices and unemployment) as well as the challenges of environmentalissues, including climate change, shrinking base of agricultural land and negativeecological impact. (Department of Health and Family Welfare 2017a: 1)

There is no denying that birth rates among this community have been very high. However, successive censuses have proved, as Abdul Mannan has established using extensive data in his recent book on immigration in Assam, that birth rates among Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Christians in Assam had been even higher than among Muslims during 1971–91. This was due to the backwardness of these communities in all dimensions of development (Mannan 2017).

Besides, a number of proposed incentives and disincentives in the draft, which were subsequently accommodated in the PWEPA, are unwarranted; for instance, the proposal that candidates with “two children only” will be eligible for government jobs, or that “government may legislate legal provision to bar people with more than two children to take part in panchayat and municipal body elections” (Department of Health and Family Welfare 2017b). Such articulations are reminiscent of the coercive family planning norms of the Emergency years (1975–77) when, for instance, the Maharashtra government proposed the two-child norm for eligibility to welfare schemes and also proposed assessment of bureaucrats on the basis of their performance in family planning. Rao and Jain (2001: 1301) suggest that “acceptance of a two-child norm is, again, made mandatory for qualifying for election to local PRIs [panchayatiraj institutions].” The Swaminathan Committee report, on which the NPP was based,

had attempted to move away from both the two-child norm and target-based approach … [T]he NPP also emphasised ... high quality social development services at the ground level as being the most crucial arrangement for enabling people who would like to have fewer children to exercise that will. (Rao and Jain 2001: 1300)

Therefore, although the Assam draft population policy and PWEPA claim to have taken NPP, 2000 as their main reference point, the inclusion of incentives and disincentives for family planning undermines its spirit.

Macro–Micro Policy Linkages

There is, however, an even more fundamental question. Rao and Jain have pointed out that the NPP entirely ignored macro–micro policy linkages. The macro policy paradigm is driven by globalfinancial institutions, and marginalises the common people at the grass-roots level. Deep inequalities and “dispossession by design” have been experienced during the 25 years of economic reforms in the country. In a state like Assam too, apart from a designed erosion of thecapacity and credibility of public health and educational institutions by the government, there has been a transfer of common property resources to the corporate sector. The development discourse in the state today is centred aroundcontested resources: whether common people and communities have control over water, land and forests, or whether these can be the monopoly of corporations that take control of them through their nexus with political establishments and the bureaucracy. Assam has been witnessing this contestation in visible ways in the recent past. The conflict over the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Power Project (LSHPP) is a prime example.Organisations such as the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), Asom Jatiyata­badi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) have been opposing this project, which has a direct impact on the environment and sources of livelihood. A population policy cannot achieve its objectives withoutresolving these vital issues of contest­ation. The draft population policy and PWEPA, like the NPP, have remainedsilent on this.

The Assam Human Development Report 2014 comprehensively documents vital issues of inequality, gender, environment and sustainability, together with concerns over health, education, nutrition and employment, which hinder human development. Although the report does not explicitly link poverty and inequality to macro­economic processes, the in-depth analysis exposes the implications of those policies. Both the draft population policy and the PWEPA have attempted to build a linkage with these issues, though only in abstract terms. In effect, therefore, the policy remains little more than a population control policy.

The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on “Impact of National Rural Health Mission on Reproductive and Child Health in Assam for the Year 2016,” placed in the Assamlegislative assembly in September 2017, exposes some of the gaps in the PWEPA. Most of the goals and strategies of the PWEPA are reflective of the goals and strategies of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) implemented in India since 2005. Assam’s performance under the NRHM has been dismal despite higher allocation of resources and a well-defined institutional framework. Whereas institutional deliveries and beneficiaries under the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) have recorded a jump from 2006–07 onwards, there has not been a corresponding impact on core targets of the NRHM, such as IMR and MMR. Apart from many other lapses, the report has pointed out that Assam has failed even in preparing annual plans to implement NRHM objectives. The CAG report has pointed out that from 2011to 2016,

Annual plans were not prepared by following bottom-up decentralised approach from village/block/district to state level. Perspective plan (PP) identifying gaps in healthcare facilities, areas of interventions and year-wise resource and activity needs, had not been prepared by the districts test checked and State Health Mission (SHM) during the mission period (2005–07). (CAG 2017: v)

It is worth recalling that Sarma, the present health and family welfare minister, had held the same portfolio from 2006 to 2014. Whereas the PWEPA does not have a vision for resource mobilisation to achieve its goals and strategies, the CAG report has pointed out the lapses of the state government in utilising allocations made under the NRHM by the union government. If the NRHM schemes had been implemented properly, the goals of the PWEPA could have been achieved before it was launched.

References

Brahmachari, Upananda (2017): “Assam to Get Its Own Population Policy Like China to Control the Population Explosion in the State,” Hinduexistence.org, 25 January.

CAG (2017): “Impact of National Rural Health Mission on Reproductive and Child Health in Assam for the Year Ended 31 March 2016,” Report No 4 of 2017, Comptroller and Auditor General ofIndia, Government of Assam.

Department of Health and Family Welfare (2017a): “Draft State Population Policy, Assam: Comments/Observations Solicited,” Public Notice No HLA 329/2017/15, 27 March, Government of Assam, Dispur.

— (2017b): “Population & Women Empowerment Policy of Assam,” Government of Assam.

Indian Express (2017): “Assam: No Govt Job for Those with More Than 2 Children, Says Draft Population Policy,” 9 April.

Mannan, Abdul (2017): Anuprabesh: Asom Andolanar Adikatha, Guwahati: Ayna Prakashan.

Rahman, Daulat (2016): “Himanta Talks of Bill Benefit—Law to Boost Majority Count: Minister,” Telegraph, Kolkata, 7 October.

Rao, Mohan and Devaki Jain (2001): “National Population Policy 2000: Re-examining Critical Issues,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 36,No 16, pp 1299–302.

Sarma, Himanta Biswa (2017): “Government Resolution, Population and Women Empowerment Policy of Assam,” Assam Legislative Assembly, 15 September.

Sharma, Chandan Kumar (2017): Facebook update, 4 May, at 9.39 pm (edited).

Updated On : 5th Dec, 2017

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