Eyebrows were raised when Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed concern about population explosion in the country in his Independence Day speech on Thursday. The surprise was because it has been a ‘No-No’ issue to 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 fourfold increase since independence. Modi has reasons for concern, as according to the World Population Prospects 2019 of the United Nations, India is further 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 all these figures, “The time has now come that we should take such challenges ahead”, the Prime Minister said.
The Prime Minister’s speech was mainly targeted towards the poorer sections and his appeal to them for small family norm is aimed at improving their standard of living. He has noted that the poor are missing out on going up the ladder because of too many hands to feed. Making it a nationalistic issue, he said, “Those who follow the policy of small family also contribute to the development of the nation; it is also a form of patriotism”.
Modi’s speech has triggered speculations 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 on population control. The southern states feel that its great success in bringing down the population level is costing them in terms of resources devolved from the Centre. Minority Affairs Minister Naqvi has claimed this week that it is a social reform.
The Prime Minister is not one who wastes words and he has used the Independence Day speech to prepare the country on population regulation. There is urgent need to push more aggressively concepts like two-child policy, advocating child spacing, contraceptive methods, promoting small family size, and persuading voluntary sterilization. Two-child norm should be made a uniform criterion for Government jobs, getting aids 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.
As India aspires to become a major economic power, it is time to define whether a growing population is an opportunity or a danger.