Assam’s two-child policy will stall development goals, says coalition of 115 groups

Development goals will be hindered in the State where the fertility rate is below the national average, it says

A coalition of civil society groups engaged in reproductive health has said Assam’s move to adopt a two-child policy for availing benefits under government schemes will hurt the poorest besides hindering the development goals of the State.

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Advocating Reproductive Choices (ARC) said there was no evidence to suggest there was a population explosion in the country. Instead, NFHS-5 or the National Family Health Survey for 2019-2020 has made it clear that men and women want smaller families even without a coercive population policy.

The ARC is a coalition of 115 organisations working towards expanding contraceptive choices, improving quality of care and ensuring availability, accessibility and affordability of reproductive health and family planning services.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on June 19 said that barring the tea plantation workers, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, people with more than two children would gradually not be able to avail benefits under specific schemes funded by the State.

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This will be in addition to the amendment made in 2018 to the Assam Panchayat Act, 1994, which requires a two-child norm along with minimum educational qualifications and functional sanitary toilets for contesting the rural polls.

“Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in Assam is 1.9, which is less than the national average of 2.2. Data from the NFHS-5 shows that 77% of the currently married women and 63% of men aged 15-49 years in Assam want no more children, are already sterilised or have a spouse who is already sterilised,” the ARC said.

“More than 82% of women and 79% of men consider the ideal family size to be two or fewer children and 11% of currently married women in Assam have an unmet need for family planning,” it added.

It was critical that policy objectives catered to population stabilisation, enabling families, especially women, to exercise choices about having children. But outside Assam, even for States which had high fertility rates, there was no evidence that a two-child policy was effective, the ARC said.

The coalition alluded to a five-State study by former bureaucrat Nirmala Buch that said sex-selective and unsafe abortions increased in States that adopted the two-child policy. The move also saw men divorcing their wives to run for local body elections and families giving up children for adoption to avoid disqualification.

The ARC also referred to China’s withdrawal of its one-child policy after finding itself amid a population crisis and an abnormally skewed male-to-female sex ratio.

“Instead of imposing stringent population control measures, it would be far more effective for Assam to focus on delaying the age of marriage, improving spacing between children, and ensuring girls stay in schools,” the ARC said.

The State also needed to invest in improving access to family planning services and expand the basket of contraceptive choices, especially long-acting reversible contraceptives, which were critical in view of the large population of adolescents and youth, the coalition advised.

“Two-child policies are known to disproportionately impact the most deprived and vulnerable, whose already low access to health and education impacts their ability to make decisions regarding their health and well-being. With COVID-19 exacerbating inequities and vulnerabilities of the most marginalised, actions such as the proposed plan to deny benefits to those with more than two children will stall Assam’s progress by further increasing inequalities and taking a toll on the poorest,” the ARC said.

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