On World Population Day, the Uttar Pradesh government released the draft of the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill, which aims to disincentivise couples from having more than two children. The draft further states that the government would provide special incentives to families who choose to adhere to the new population control norms. However, the most controversial part of the draft is that it strives to debar families that flout this proposed law from various welfare schemes.
It is in this context that one must ask: Can the state consciously choose whom to give welfare support to in a democratic country? Can we debar already dehumanised and marginalised communities from availing important subsidies? This is ironic since the draft states that the bill aims to stabilise the population for the promotion of sustainable development with more equitable distribution.
Not only does the bill appear like a knee-jerk reaction to garner public support after a series of humiliating failures in the past year, the bill assumes that all Indian women have autonomy over their reproductive rights and most importantly, their bodies. In reality, various stakeholders like family, education, socio-economic structures and societal pressures influence the reproductive choices of most women. Implementing this bill without an on-ground assessment or family-planning campaigns would largely endanger women from low-income and marginalised communities.
According to various studies, women in urban and rural spaces are aware of different contraceptives through health workers but less than 50% of them practice contraception. While the draft bill states that maternity centres would be established and contraceptives would be distributed, it doesn’t aim to address the misogynistic behaviour and attitude of our citizenry.
During my fieldwork at the Ambedkar Nagar and Ambojwadi community in Mumbai from 2017-19, it was strikingly evident that women’s agency in their reproductive decisions was largely absent. The men didn’t want to use contraceptives for multiple reasons – from harbouring misconstrued perceptions regarding various contraceptives, to the desperate need for a male child fed by a misinformed notion that contraceptive would harm such chances.
COVID-19 made this situation even worse – the pandemic drastically impacted access to contraceptives and family planning services. Coupled with the severe breakdown of our primary healthcare infrastructure, the fear of losing welfare schemes would lead to more cases of female infanticide and foeticide, destabilising the sex ratio further. While abortions are legal in India, due to social ostracisation, unsafe abortions would increase, endangering the lives of women.
If the UP government truly cares about its population, they would create a robust model of family-planning campaigns and services that would cater to the diverse population of the state. While most of the awareness campaigns focus on women, special attention should be given to their partners and families so they can truly understand the need and significance of family planning.
Before implementing such an erratic bill, the state must first revamp their existing healthcare system by investing and legally safeguarding the healthcare workers. Throughout the pandemic, Asha workers remained among the most significant healthcare workers, reaching out to the most underserved communities across the country. Despite this, they were not provided with essential equipment to protect themselves and had to face severe resistance from the community.
An issue as sensitive as population control requires more than a legal framework – we need a strategy that takes into consideration the fears and anxieties of all communities instead of using the carrot and the stick approach. Such a bill, if legislated, would disproportionately harm the women from the marginalised communities due to their lack of autonomy in their personal and financial decisions. By creating a ‘punishment’ for people by debarring them from important schemes, the UP government is yet again using their infamous model of fear to further dehumanise marginalised communities.
As citizens, all of us need to read between the lines of policy documents and ask important questions about the implementation of such laws instead of amplifying and applauding empty headlines. How does the bill aim to educate communities about family planning? How do we safeguard the lives of women and young girls? Is there a way to ensure that the government wouldn’t misuse this bill to attack minority and Bahujan communities?
If the state demands trust from its population, it must earn it.
Simran Varma is pursuing her masters in Education from Ambedkar University.
Featured image credit: UP CM Adityanath. Photo: Twitter/@CMOfficeUP