The Second State Finance Commission of Orissa has proposed a worrying method of population control - one clearly inspired by China's infamous One-Child Policy. It has recommended to the state government that parents above the poverty line with more than two children should pay an annual 'population welfare cess' of Rs 60 for the third child and every child after. For those below the poverty line, the proposed cess is Rs 25.
Evidently, an important section of policymakers in Orissa see no wrong in defying the National Population Policy (NPP) 2000 and overlooking the UN's 1995 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The ICPD and NPP are based on the premise that 'development is the best contraceptive'. Empowerment and education of women, providing effective health services, informed choices for family size and male involvement in reproductive health are the cornerstones of this approach. And the third-child cess directly contravenes these policies. Human rights lawyer Flavia Agnes, in fact, called it a "deprivation of people's fundamental right to life and liberty".
Ex-chairperson of the Commission, Trilochan Kanungo, whose brainchild this proposal is, appears unfazed. He is even on record saying: "Orissa has not implemented the recommendation so far, but it is certainly a pathfinder for the country as a whole to arrest population growth. A cess on more than two children is an ideal solution and a desirable step. It would make couples conscious about the importance of restricting births."
Social activists have reacted sharply to the recommendation, which assumes more immediate significance in view of the upcoming panchayat elections (tentatively scheduled for January 2007). Activists are already opposing the implementation of the two-child norm in panchayat elections, which disqualifies persons with more than two children from contesting elections.
Women's activists say that not only is the recommendation grossly regressive, it is also likely to further widen the gender and class disparities in society. Tapashi Praharaj, State Secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association, says, "The majority of those who have been disqualified from the panchayat elections because they had more than two children were from the backward communities, poor and illiterate. With 38.6 per cent of Orissa's population belonging to core poverty groups - the Scheduled Tribes and Caste communities - who else do you think will be paying this penalty for the third child?"
Dr P K Sarakar, Professor of Law at the Utkal University in Bhubaneshwar, believes that this recommendation could also have wide-ranging political and other ramifications. "This cess has been built on China's One-Child Policy. However, in India minority communities will attempt to seek exemptions based on their personal laws - some of which allow a man to marry more than one woman. In that eventuality, only some communities would be penalized for having more than two children. The policy worked under China's command economy. But in India's multi-religious democracy, the law is completely unfeasible."
And futile too. India's history shows the ineffectiveness of coercive measures to control population. Recall Sanjay Gandhi's forced sterilization drive during the 1975 Emergency in India.
Besides, China's One Child Policy - if anything - should stand as a warning, not an inspiration. When China taxed the second child to control its population growth, the country's sex ratio became dangerously lopsided. A July 2006 study published in the UK-based journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Science' warns that, over the next two decades some parts of India and China are looking at a 12 to 15 per cent increase in favor of men in the sex ratio. These men will be struggling to find sexual partners, and these societies, the researchers warn, will see an increase in violent crimes.
Praharaj believes the warning comes in good time: "Given the semi-feudal nature of Oriya society, if the third child is taxed, couples will subvert the family planning jingle and declare 'We two, Our two sons'! Sex selective feticides will see a quantum jump."
Rita Ray, Professor of Sociology at Utkal University, sees yet another fallout. "The Dalits and the poor will go on having more children, because for them more working hands directly translates into more earnings. Those who have formulated the recommendation, I am afraid, haven't given the issue deeper thought."
That the recommendation has not been thought through is evident in other ways as well. The cess can be levied only on the basis of registered births. In Orissa, though, about 77 per cent of all births happen in the home (as per the National Family Health Survey data for 1998-99), and many of them go unregistered. Keeping tabs on unregistered births is a gargantuan task that the administrative machinery is not geared for at all. And implementing the cess only for the registered population would, in effect, amount to penalizing people for registering births.
Orissa has a decadal growth rate of 15.94 - lower than the national rate of 21.34 (Census of India 2001). Why, then, is the government proposing a measure that no other state or Union territory in India has thought fit to take up? "This is a cover-up. The government wants to divert attention from the uncomfortable truth that it has been incapable of providing basic needs like food security, primary healthcare and livelihood. It is trying to hold population growth responsible for the precarious condition in which Orissa finds itself today," says Praharaj emphatically.
Finally, the question that the people of Orissa are now asking is: Does the government have a health service system in place to guarantee the survival of two children? If it does not, how can it think of taxing the third child? As per figures from the Sample Registration System, April 2006, Orissa's infant mortality rate (IMR) is the second-highest in India (77 per 1,000 live births, as compared to 58 at the national level). In the state's Kalahandi district, IMR stands at 93. According to a study (May-August 2006) on primary health care in Orissa by the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad, there is a shortfall of 2,000 doctors in Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK; Orissa's most backward districts).
Clearly, the Commission's recommendation could well be trying to address poverty by taxing the poorest of the poor. It should also stand as a warning to other states in the country that may be tempted to look at development as divorced from human rights.