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Himachal Pradesh shows the way

Wednesday 4 May 2005, by PARSAI*Gargi

Women had to bear the brunt as men tried to beat the ban on those with more than two children contesting panchayat elections. Now the State has rescinded this norm.

HIMACHAL Pradesh has shown the way. It has rescinded a provision on the two-child norm in its Panchayat Raj Act and decisively moved away from the coercive approach to family welfare setting an example for Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh. These States have diverted from the National Population Policy and imposed the two-child norm on the panchayat office-bearers.

The two-child norm disqualifies candidates from contesting panchayat elections if they have more than two children on the cut-off date. Such coercive measures and disincentives are contrary to the spirit of reservation for women and Dalits in the 73rd Constitutional (Panchayat Raj) Amendment Act. Women groups have protested that the restrictive norm put women at a disadvantage forcing them to either stay out of the election process or go in for unsafe abortion. It is no secret that with son preference, such a norm encourages female foeticide. Himachal, which goes for Panchayat Raj elections in December, was no exception.

In 2000, Himachal introduced the two-child restriction on panchayat office-bearers through a provision in the H.P. Panchayat Raj Act. Since then, the State Government has been besieged with representations from women’s groups and panchayat raj members against the discriminatory and coercive policy. Recently, "social malpractices" started showing a rising trend. There was a decline both, in the total fertility rates (2.14 per cent) as well as the female-male ratio in the 0-6 age-group (897 females per 1000 males) revealing a high incidence of female foeticide.

A deputy-pradhan in Nichan village of the Kinnaur tribal area disowned his third child, alleging an "illicit" relationship between his wife and brother. The brother then agreed to "adopt" the child. What it did for the morale and dignity of the wife can only be imagined. The deputy-pradhan has been served a showcause notice.

According to the State Rural Development Secretary, Upma Choudhary, the State Government did surveys for a year, looked into all complaints brought in by NGOs such as Priya and Sutra and discovered numerous social malpractices to avoid the two-child norm. Invariably, the brunt had to be borne by women either by going in for abortion or by delivering the third child surreptitiously or by being disowned by a husband who would want to further his career.

Ms. Choudhary said there were cases of elected office-bearers not registering the third child born after the cut-off date and even of "tampering" with the birth registration records to show that the third child was born before the policy came into being.

But most of all, there were protests against the discriminatory provision, especially when there were no such norms for the Members of the Legislative Assembly and the Members of Parliament. Finally, last month, the State Assembly repealed the provision. The amended Bill awaits the approval of the Governor.

Although the National Population Policy, 2000 is clearly against coercion, targets and incentives/disincentives for population stabilisation, the Centre has long kept pending a Bill - the 79th Constitution Amendment Bill. The Bill calls for debarring MLAs and MPs with more than two children from contesting elections from a cut-off date. The Bill has been pending in the Rajya Sabha since 1972 for lack of political consensus.

There has been no political consensus on that Bill although there were attempts during the previous National Democratic Alliance tenure to revive it. Most of the deviations (two-child norm) in the State Population Policy are based on that Bill.

In a move reminiscent of the coercive sterilisation days of the Emergency, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s National Common Minimum Programme also speaks of "a sharply targeted population control programme in the 150 or so high-fertility districts." It was only when this was pointed out in the media, in various fora and by civil society groups that the Centre beat a hasty retreat. It has now decided that the 79th Constitution Amendment Bill will not be revived and that the coercive two-child norm is "not acceptable." Yet the Centre has not taken any steps to persuade the deviating States to rescind their two-child norm policy.

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