For 30 years Kerala has been inching towards zero population growth. Experts believe that in another 30 years it will reach that ideal state. But, then, the course of idealism, like that of love, never runs smooth.
Overcome by the fear of being overwhelmed by others, leaders of a religious minority are egging on the faithful to produce more children so that the tribe's number goes up. In an apparent response to the move, a government-appointed commission is considering a proposal to penalize those who reject the 'small family' norm.
Kerala underwent a dramatic demographic transition in the last century. The 1911 census put the region, which then lay divided into two princely states, Travancore and Cochin, and the Malabar district of the Madras presidency, at 7.15 million. The decennial growth rate was 11.76 percent.
At the time of independence, the region's population was around 12.5 million. The decennial growth rate hovered above 20 percent. That set alarm bells ringing.
The 1971 census put the population at 21.3 million. The decennial growth was now 26.3 percent, the highest in the country. Then the tide turned.
The population continued to grow, but the growth rate fell -- to 19.2 percent in 1981 and 14.3 percent in 1991. By 2001, it fell further to 9.4 percent, the lowest in the country. The national growth rate at that stage was 21.3 percent.
Clearly, the family planning programme, which the country took up in 1952, has been a roaring success in the state. However, to understand the miracle fully, one has to go back to the social reform movements that swept the region in the early part of the last century.
The reformers held out education as the key to progress. As literacy and education spread, the agrarian society started cracking. So did the extended family system, which had prospered in the feudal era. As the revolution of rising expectations swirled up the emergent middle class, families voluntarily limited their size in order to improve their circumstances.
Gradually, the 'small family, happy family' message percolated down to the masses as well. The poor, too, started restricting family size with a view to giving children better education and ensuring that they could lead better lives than they themselves did.
The sharp fall in the infant mortality rate, brought about by improvement in public health standards, helped the process. The inducements that the government offered to encourage the people to take to family planning helped, too.
Significantly, there was no use of force. There was no compulsory sterilization programme of the kind that some northern states witnessed during the Emergency (1975-77).
The Church's well-known opposition to contraception did not discourage members of the large Christian minority from practicing family planning, although they were slow in taking to it. Muslims were even slower.
The differential growth rate of the various religious groups has resulted in changes in the composition of the population. In 1991, Hindus were 57.4 percent of the population. In 2001, they were 56.2 percent.
There was a slight fall in the Christian population also during this period: from 19.3 percent to 19.0 percent. However, the Muslim population rose from 23.3 percent to 24.7 percent.
When these figures became available, some Hindu outfits raised a scare about the minorities wiping out the majority's small numerical advantage. The campaign, motivated by political and communal considerations, did not evoke much sympathy. After all, the people who went in for small families had done so on their own, and not under compulsion.
Those with an understanding of demographic realities have pointed out that the growth rate among Muslims, too, is coming down, and there is little chance of their overtaking the Hindu majority.
In 1991, the total fertility rate (which indicates children born per woman) among Muslims was 2.97. In 2001, it was only 2.28.
There is a correlation between demographic changes and socio-economic conditions. A commission that inquired into the representation of the backward classes in the state services found that more than 7,000 posts reserved for Muslims were lying vacant.
In the matter of higher education, Muslims lag behind the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. According to the findings of a survey conducted by the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, a reputed NGO, only 8.1 percent of Muslims are pursuing higher education, as against 10.3 percent among the Dalits and 11.8 percent among the tribals.
In a belated response to the demographic changes, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council expressed grave concern over the drop in the Christian percentage. Prelates followed it up with exhortations to produce more children.
According to published reports, the State Law Reforms Commission, headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, is drafting a law which may prescribe penalties for flouting the two-child rule. The proposals under consideration include a fine of Rs.10,000 on the parents and denial of free education and healthcare to the third child.
Cardinal Joseph Vithayathil condemned the proposal as a Chinese import. Justice Krishna Iyer clarified that the commission had not taken a formal decision and that the draft bill was still in the embryonic stage.
The proposed legislative measure appears to be as much ill-conceived as the religious leaders' plan to augment the flock. There is no justification for compulsion until there is evidence to establish that the voluntary family planning programme is getting subverted.
(B.R.P. Bhaskar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)