Population Control Policies: Inglorious Heritage From 1970s

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. (Photograph: NMML/Government of India)

Population Control Policies: Inglorious Heritage From 1970s


India and China, the two most populous nations, blundered with their birth control policies in the 1970s. In a rare misjudgment, Deng Xiaoping mistakenly believed that China’s population explosion could be remedied by a ruthless implementation of the ‘one-child family’ rule. What followed was state retribution on any family that dared to break the one-child law.

Population Control Policies: Inglorious Heritage From 1970s

Deng’s Folly In Arithmetic

An elementary bit of demographic arithmetic got missed by Deng and his communist cohort. If only they had drawn the family chart for three generations, they would have realised their folly, because a dreadful ‘inverted pyramid’ gets formed. Just think about it. Two pairs of grandparents, i.e. four adults, add only one parent each, i.e. two adults, to their second generation. And these two parents add only one adult to the third generation, creating the dreadful inverted pyramid where six grand-parents and parents give way to only one grandchild by the third generation.

Since every successive generation is beginning to live longer, not only does the population shrink dramatically under a one-child dispensation, it also becomes much older, forcing an enormous burden on the single grandchild, who has to look after six adult dependents, in addition to his or her own spouse and child, ie eight dependents living off one productive adult.

Today, China is suffering the simple-but-devastating demographic consequences of the one-child policy, as its labour force shrinks creating a severe drag on economic growth.

China has now abolished its one-child law, aggressively trying to convince married couples to have more children, but people are reluctant, having gotten used to living in one-child families.

Also read: China’s Three-Child Policy Won’t Reverse Population Decline

Sanjay Gandhi’s Emergency Drive

Ironically, India too flirted with authoritarianism and population control during its painful tryst with the Emergency in 1975. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, goaded by her favourite son Sanjay, launched a merciless campaign to sterilise adult men. It was an unusually coercive program, with state officials employing violent tactics to meet their sterilisation targets.

Mercifully, the Emergency was lifted after only 21 months. Mrs Gandhi lost the elections as a terrified electorate rejected mass sterilisation. Subsequent governments were too chastened to ever deploy vindictive population control methods.

India pivoted to education and persuasive social campaigns to achieve its objectives.

Those have been slow to work, but the bulk of the country is currently at or under the replacement rate of 2.1 children per mother, except for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are still growing in numbers. But in these states too, the growth rate is descending towards the replacement rate, and it’s a matter of time before India’s population stabilises, perhaps around the 1.5-1.6 billion mark.

Also read: India’s Working Age Population In Decline, Says Ruchir Sharma

Demographic Control Veiled As Population Control

With the inglorious heritage of mass sterilisations during the Emergency, it’s surprising that Bharatiya Janata Party governments in Uttar Pradesh and Assam are resurrecting coercive population control policies.

However, if you parse the language, perhaps the real objective is demographic polarisation, not control.

Chief Minister Adityanath of U.P. is openly canvassing for “a population balance among various communities”, making an invisible-yet-overt reference to Muslims who are mistakenly accused of being far more fecund than Hindus. Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam is a trifle more candid, aiming his message at the “migrant Muslim community”. Both are bringing tough laws with strong penal consequences for families which have more than two children. Anybody who “violates” this law will be barred from contesting local body elections or getting government jobs or promotions or subsidies.

Will the new population control laws of Uttar Pradesh and Assam deliver their demographic objectives? It’s a highly questionable outcome since punishment has seldom worked. However, education, economic upliftment, and empowerment of women have always worked. That’s the only foolproof method of rationalising a country’s population.

On the other hand, will these laws deliver their allegedly covert objective of communal polarisation? The jury is out, and one can only hope that communities do not fall prey to divisive propaganda here. Unfortunately, going by the ugly track record of hate-generating ‘WhatsApp universities’, one should be prepared for the worst.

Is this one more instance of China progressing after learning the lessons of history, but India regressing after unlearning the same lessons?

Raghav Bahl is Co-Founder – The Quint Group including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.

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