No representation without sterilisation

I was brought up to believe that democracy means representation of the people. Our politicians seem to believe it means representation of condoms. This is the implication of the Union Cabinet\’s decision to freeze the allocation of Lok Sabha seats between states till 2025.

The allocation was due to be revised in 2001 to take into account changes in population. But Tamil Nadu and Kerala complained that a revision on the basis of population would reduce the number of Lok Sabha seats for southern states with good family planning records, and give more seats to northern states which had neglected birth control.

The Cabinet has accepted this logic, and so have all parties. The very lack of controversy seems scandalous to me. Democracy is about giving a voice to every citizen. It is not about population control. Every living person has a right to representation regardless of religion race or creed: can he or she be denied representation on the basis of family size? Instead of regarding representation in Parliament as a fundamental right of citizens, our politicians view it as a sort of Republic Day award for family planning performance.

No wonder our democracy is looking increasingly moth-eaten.The notion that freezing seats will penalise states that neglect family planning reveals a sad misunderstanding of the issue. Low population growth need not imply success in family planning at all. It can simply mean a high death rate. In 1981-91, Bihar population growth of 24.1 per cent was actually less than the national average of 24.7 per cent. Uttar Pradesh growth was only a bit above the national average at 25.5 per cent. These state have the highest birth rates, but also have such high death rates that population does not grow much.

So, basing Lok Sabha seats on population growth can, in the worst case, mean rewarding a state that kills off most of its babies through neglect. Just look at the accompanying table. It shows how little connection there is between population growth and the birth rate. The highest ever birth rate for the country was 48.1 per thousand in the decade 1911-21l, yet population actually declined by 0.4 per cent in that decade because of mass deaths caused by Asian Flu.

The second highest birth rate was the all-India figure for 1921-31, yet population growth was only 11 per cent over the decade because of a high death rate. Kerala and Tamil Nadu boast that they have low population growth rates today, yet their actual rates in the 1981-91 decade–14.3 per cent and 15.4 per cent respectively– were far higher than the all-India average of the 1910s and 1920s, when birth rates went into the stratosphere.

So, whom does the freezing of Lok Sabha seats really penalise? It penalises the poor, especially those in the most backward states with the worst facilities. They have the largest families, not because they are stupid but because in states with high infant mortality it makes sense to have many children.

Besides, for poor families, many children represent a form of old-age security. The notion that UP and Bihar will respond to the freeze on Lok Sabha seats by promoting family planning is laughable. The move simply reduces the representation of the poor without providing any stimulus for social improvement.

India remains a country where a great many people, especially in the middle class, are convinced that force is needed to reduce fertility. This is plain wrong, and ignores evidence the world over. Dozens of developing countries have reduced their fertility rates without force or penalties, and this is true even of dirt-poor country like Bangladesh.

This neighbour of ours has reduced its fertility rate from 6.1 children per woman in 1980 to 3.1 children in 1998, which means it has now overhauled India ( 3.2 children per woman). So much for the RSS myth that Muslims do not practice family planning, and must be coerced into it.

The Indian fascination with penalties reflects a mind-set that Mao would have applauded but liberals like me deplore. Democracy began in America with the cry, No taxation without representation. Indian politicians have put a new spin on this: no representation without sterilisation.

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