Debating India


A battle won

Saturday 21 May 2005, by RAJALAKSHMI*T.K.

The abolition of the two-child norm for persons contesting panchayat elections in Himachal Pradesh is welcomed by women’s groups which had sought to highlight its effect on the child sex ratio.

Reproductive health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes. Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this last condition are the right of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, as well as other methods of their choice for regulation of fertility which are not against the law, and the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant. In line with the above definition of reproductive health, reproductive health care is defined as the constellation of methods, techniques and services that contribute to reproductive health and well-being by preventing and solving reproductive health problems. It also includes sexual health, the purpose of which is the enhancement of life and personal relations, and not merely counselling and care related to reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases.

- From the Beijing Declaration of the Platform For Action (PFA)of the International Conference

on Population and Development (ICPD), 1995.

SUSHEELA is from Sirmaur Mahanta village in Himachal Pradesh. She does not know of the ICPD or of India’s status as a signatory to the Beijing Declaration. Neither is she aware that she has the right to decide how many children she wants to have. All she knows is that she is no longer a ward panch. She was removed from the elected post after she had her third child, because she had violated the two-child norm of panchayati raj. Not that she had done so out of choice. She had tried to persuade her husband to undergo sterilisation after the couple had two children, but he would not listen.

Susheela was not the only one to be disqualified from holding a public post in the State for not following the two-child norm. According to data compiled from 10 districts by Sutra, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in areas related to gender, education and health, 253 people were removed from their posts between April 8, 2001, when the two-child norm came into force, and May 2004. Among them were 12 women and 13 men who were removed from the post of panchayat pradhan; 29 men and five women who were disqualified as deputy pradhans; and 60 women and 126 men who were disqualified as ward members.

Now, however, the situation has changed dramatically. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly has passed an amendment Bill removing the disqualification clause from the Panchayati Raj Act. New contestants in the panchayat polls in the State will no longer be disqualified if they have more than two children. The government said the two-child norm had been creating "social problems" and was "anti-woman". It was a victory for groups such as Sutra, former bureaucrats and women’s organisations that had lobbied hard at all levels to drive home the need to do away with the two-child norm, which they said was also contrary to the National Population Policy (NPP) 2000. The disqualification clause had been introduced in the State during the tenure of the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by P.K. Dhumal.

On April 5, Rural Development Minister Sat Mahajan moved the Amendment Bill. "I took a conscious decision and the Cabinet okayed it," Sat Mahajan told Frontline. He said the issue had come up during discussions with Union Minister for Panchayati Raj Mani Shankar Aiyar.

The Sutra survey found that there were several pradhans who had more than two children but had got their third child registered as someone else’s offspring. In Sirmaur district, where Susheela lives, the survey found the maximum number of disqualifications. With most families preferring sons, women in this district had undergone repeated abortions to ensure that they had sons and also did not go against the two-child norm. It was a worrying trend in a State where female foeticide is rampant despite a high degree of literacy and quality health care services. Sutra had presented National Family Health Survey (NHFS) data (1992-93 and 1998-99) on the declining total fertility rate to the previous State government, but there was little impact.

The director of Sutra, Subhash Mendhapurkar, told Frontline that most of the men whom the NGO surveyed had simply disowned the third child. "In one case, we found that a gram panchayat pradhan decided to divorce his wife. In some areas where polyandry is prevalent, the men began getting their children registered in the name of other brothers. In some other cases, we found that the men had dumped their wives after a child’s delivery and refused to bring them back from their parents’ homes," he said.

Most of those who were disqualified were below 37. The third child of most of the disqualified women, the Sutra survey found, was male, which raised suspicions that these women might have been forced to undergo ultrasound tests to determine the sex of the child.

The Census data, Mendhapurkar said, revealed a direct relationship between literacy and the sex ratio: "Wherever there is higher literacy, barring Kerala and the northeastern States, the girl child sex ratio was found to be poor. The better the economy, the greater the domestication of women and the lesser their role in direct economic activities." Women’s labour is confined to domestic chores and rearing of children. With widespread literacy, people are found to be opting for smaller families, without renouncing the culture of "son preference".

In the Hindi belt, Himachal Pradesh can boast of the highest literacy rate; every 17th adult is a State government employee and a large number of people are employed in Defence services or have Central government jobs. There is also a high degree of self-employment.

An interesting aspect is that the sex ratio is found to be favourable for girls in rural areas where vegetables are grown, presumably because the skills of women are useful in the cultivation of vegetables. Most of the disqualifications under the two-child norm occurred in areas that had favourable sex ratios.

According to informed sources, the State Health Department and its bureaucrats were initially reluctant to acknowledge the declining girl child sex ratio when Census 2001 came out with the startling revelation. With the Health Department unresponsive, concerned individuals and organisations approached the Women and Child Department and told its officials that if they did not address the issue of the vanishing girl child, there would not be any women left for the Department to deal with. Gradually, things started moving and steps to register ultrasound machines (as required by the PNDT Act) were initiated. Still, everybody missed the link between the two-child norm and the declining child sex ratio.

THE two-child norm is now history in Himachal Pradesh, but the bad news is that it is still in force in at least six other States. Two of them are Congress-ruled - Haryana and Andhra Pradesh - while Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are ruled by the BJP and Orissa is ruled by a combine of the Biju Janata Dal and the BJP. The commitment of the Central government to launch a sharply targeted population control programme in 150 high-fertility districts has not made things any better.

Women’s organisations and health forums find themselves in an ironical position because it was they who had demanded, several decades ago, access to family planning and related services as a right. In a memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister early this year, 15 organisations, including the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the Delhi Science Forum, the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the National Federation of Indian Women and the Medico Friends Circle, pointed out how the full burden of population control has been placed on women and how the fundamental rights of women and children, especially girls, have been violated. And shockingly, sex ratios loaded against the girl child were most prominent in the affluent parts of the country. In prosperous South Delhi, Census 2001 showed 762 females for every 1,000 males.

Another detailed memorandum was submitted to Mani Shankar Aiyar, urging him to write to the Chief Ministers to remove the two-child norm because it had no connection with the roles and responsibilities of panchayat members. Thirty-six individuals representing various organisations wrote that it was inconsistent with the NPP 2000 and adversely affected women, Dalits and the weaker sections of society without serving the purported intent of achieving population stabilisation rapidly. They also urged the Union Minister to move the Supreme Court for a review of its judgment of July 30, 2003. A three-Judge Bench had upheld a piece of legislation in Haryana, which had a similar disqualifying clause. The judgment observed: "Disqualification on the right to contest an election for having more than two living children does not contravene any fundamental right, nor does it cross the limits of reasonability. Rather, it is a disqualification conceptually devised in the national interest."

The memorandum to the Union Minister contained a detailed fact sheet on population, the negative impact of imposing the two-child norm for elections, the limited impact of the norm on India’s population growth and arguments against penalties and also against China’s one-child policy. It spoke of the misconceptions regarding economic prosperity and population size and policy lessons of population stabilisation. Some of the prominent signatories to the memorandum were Vina Mazumdar, chairperson, CWDS; A.R. Nanda, former Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare who is now with the Population Foundation of India; A.K. Shivakumar of the United Nations Children’s Fund; Nirmala Buch of the Bhopal-based Mahila Chetna Manch; Jean Dreze, economist and National Advisory Council member; and Imrana Qadeer, Professor in the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In March, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, while delivering the Ninth J.R.D. Tata Memorial Oration on the subject "Towards Population Stabilisation: Role of Good Governance", drew attention to the lopsided child sex ratio and strongly criticised the two-child norm. He said: "As some studies have indicated, the decline in CSR [child sex ratio] has spread to regions and populations hitherto considered immune, namely the States of the South and West of India and populations of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Indeed, the adverse CSR has been particularly high among the Scheduled Caste population. What is also distressing is that the decline is more marked in the more developed and better-off regions and in more literate and better-off social groups. The questions that emerge are: Is population stabilisation being achieved at the cost of female lives? Do punitive population policies contribute to this?"

Expressing his views on the two-child norm, he said: "In view of the laws enacted by some States linking the two-child norm with the right to contest elections to the panchayati raj institutions, which have since received judicial endorsement, the majority of the populations in these States are in effect deprived of their right to contest elections. Needless to say, this is not in consonance with and may be said to violate the spirit of the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution. The largest number of cases of disqualification from contesting elections was with reference to this law. Women formed 41 per cent of those disqualified; Dalits, Adivasis and the OBCs [Other Backward Classes] formed an overwhelming 80 per cent of those disqualified. It is thus clear that given the strong patriarchy in the country and thus the ideology of son preference, particularly marked in the high-fertility areas of the country, a vigorous pursuit of the two-child norm is likely to have the most undesirable consequences as it could degenerate into sex-selective abortions. Indeed, it was the recognition of this link that compelled the Chinese government to abandon officially its one-child per family norm."

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 11, May 21 - Jun. 03, 2005

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