Too Heavy a Price to Pay: India’s Two-Child Norm Hurts Women, Girls and the Poor

At the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo, 179 governments signed a landmark agreement that broke with coercive population control and embraced women’s empowerment and reproductive health as the key to reducing population growth. In India, the Cairo agreement helped spark long overdue reforms to the country’s draconian family planning program known for sterilization abuse. In 2000 the government announced a new National Population Policy based on free and informed consent and critical of “any form of coercion.”

Today, however, ten of India’s most populous states, among them Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, have implemented a ‘two-child norm’ that violates both the letter and spirit of the Cairo agreement as well as the National Population Policy. Like China’s one-child program, this vast experiment in social engineering exacts the heaviest toll on women and girls. It also serves as an ingenious tool for disenfranchising the poor, especially tribal minorities and dalit (formerly known as ‘untouchable’); communities.

The two-child norm is enforced through a variety of mechanisms. In some states parents with more than two children lose access to welfare programs and government jobs while those who ‘accept’ sterilization after two get preferential access to state resources. Third children are denied ration cards for subsidized food and access to public schooling. In Tamil Nadu, agricultural laborers who lose a limb can only receive insurance compensation if they have no more than two children; in Maharashtra farmers with more than two children have to pay higher rates for irrigation facilities. Uttar Pradesh has gone so far as to make gun licenses contingent on ‘motivating’ five cases for sterilization. To get his revolver license, one rich landowner drugged five of his workers and had them sterilized without their consent. A more common provision is prohibiting people from contesting local elections or holding local office if they have a third child after a certain date. Since poor people tend to have more children than the rich – partly to offset high rates of infant and child mortality due to abysmal health conditions – this effectively means the rich can strengthen their hold on local power structures. In 1993 India passed the Panchayati Raj Act that made it mandatory to reserve seats in local councils or panchayats for women and oppressed communities. Precisely because this act fostered greater democratic participation of the poor, it angered high-caste and vested interests who are now using the two-child norm to disqualify their rivals.

Beyond Numbers, a recent study of the norm’s impact in Madya Pradesh by the women’s group SAMA, documents a number of cases of women and dalits being removed from local office. Moreover, to stay in office, husbands were forcing wives to have abortions or to give away their third children for adoption. “I want a future in politics,” one man told SAMA. “For that reason I gave away one of my daughters.” There were also instances of men divorcing or deserting their wives and insisting their third child was not their own.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the two-child norm is the way it reinforces son preference and the practice of sex-selective abortion, much as the one-child policy has done in China. India’s 2001 census revealed a shocking decline in child sex ratios in many areas of the country. In Delhi, one of the country’s most prosperous areas, there were only 716 girls born for every 1000 boys between January and June this year. Only allowed two children, many families will opt for sons rather than daughters to avoid dowry payments and to ensure old age support. “Given the ideology of son preference in the country,” writes Indian community health expert Dr. Mohan Rao, “a vigorous pursuit of the two-child norm is an invitation to sex-selective abortion.”

The two-child norm has not gone unchallenged. Due to pressure from health and women’s rights advocates, Himachal Pradesh was the first state to revoke the norm, and this November Madhya Pradesh followed suit. Its Chief Minister told the press that he had received many complaints about the policy “ranging from selective abortion to abandonment of the third child.” Opposition to the norm has also come from more conservative quarters. Hindu fundamentalist leader K.S. Sudarshan recently urged Hindu women to have as many babies as possible so as to outproduce Muslims. Despite opposition to the norm, a 2003 Supreme Court decision still stands that upholds two-child policies in Haryana state. In its ruling the Court asserted that “Complacence in controlling population growth in the name of democracy is too heavy a price to pay, allowing the nation to drift toward disaster.” But by disenfranchising the poor and punishing women and girls, the two child norm is much too high a price to pay for reducing population growth. The Indian government needs to heed the lessons of Cairo: A population policy based on women’s empowerment and voluntary family planning is much more effective and humane.

Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA and co-editor with Banu Subramaniam and Charles Zerner of the recently published anthology, Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties (Rowman and Littlefield 2005).

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