A two-child policy in overpopulated India? It won't work, say experts

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Source: Ondranil Mukherjee/Getty Images

(CNN) — Some politicians in India are clamoring for what they believe to be a quick fix to the country's population problem: a two-child policy for Indian citizens.

As activists and experts scramble to educate the public on the need for contraception and family planning, these politicians want to limit each family to have just two children.

Today, India's population stands at 1.31 billion people, second only to China. Experts estimate India will surpass China in just a few years, according to the United States Census Bureau.

India's fertility rate has dropped to 2.3 births per woman in 2016, compared to 3.2 births per woman in 2000, according to government data. But the booming population has been raising concerns for decades due to a rising poverty, decline in jobs and a poor literacy rate.

"No person shall procreate more than two living children after a period of one year from the commencement of this Act," stated a population control bill introduced on the Parliament floor in 2016 by Prahalad Singh Patel, a legislator from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The bill -- which never even came to a vote -- listed measures that the Indian government would take if they wanted to check the ever-growing population. If passed, the bill would make it mandatory for individuals to seek permission from officials if they want to have more than two children, permission that could be denied if sufficient cause was not met.

"There is a universal truth you will have to consider. There is water, roads, health, sanitation: how will you give all these facilities if the population keeps increasing," Patel told CNN.

The bill's introduction opened up a debate, which was followed by more than 100 legislators submitting a letter to the president of India, Ram Nath Kovind, in August and appealing for him to take their demand seriously.

"The land is shrinking and the population is rising. There is no place to build homes. In this situation, there should be some control on population," Ganesh Singh, one of the legislators demanding the implementation told CNN. "Now or later, this will have to be done."

But B. Paswan, head of the department of population policies and programmes at the International Institute for Population Sciences highlighted the proposition is simply not realistic.

"No government can bring any such strong policy in India. People will reject it. The two-child policy is not possible with the socio-economic condition of the country," he said. "The change will come with development. It is heading that way already."

Decline without restricting families

The Indian government does not have any plans to implement a two-child policy since it is a signatory to the International Conference on population and Development declaration. Signed in 1994, the declaration advocates free speech and honors the reproductive rights of couples to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of children.

India has been grappling with population control for decades, which has resulted in abject poverty, with government welfare programmes unable to cater to thousands of people earning less than $3 per day.

"There are several factors for the high population. We have a large percentage of the population in the reproductive age group. Only 54% of couples use contraceptives," said Paswan.

Over the years, the government has instead introduced more than a dozen schemes that educate families in rural India on the benefits of family planning, such as financial incentives, awareness campaigns and distribution of contraceptives like condoms and pills, or hold sterilization drives.

India spent more than $100 million on family planning in 2015 to 16, with some of these programs resulting in improvement.

According to the ministry of health and family welfare, India's rate of total population growth has declined from 21.5% during the 1991 to 2001 period, to 17.6% during the 2001 to 2011 period.

There are other indicators behind the drop in population: development, increasing education level, increase in the age of marriage, said Paswan.

Learning from China's mistakes

China eliminated its one-child policy in 2015, changing the law to allow couples to have two children. The country is now moving to remove birth restriction overall as concerns are growing over an aging population and a dropping birth rate. In 2017, the country's fertility was low, at 1.6 children per woman.

China introduced its one-child policy in 1979 over concerns that the population was increasing at a very fast rate. But the policy has brought its own set of challenges to one of the world's biggest economies, which has had a declining youth population for years while the proportion of the population over age 65 has risen from about 4% to almost 10%.

The policy also had worrying consequences for the gender balance as a desire for male children led to reported abortions and infanticide to ensure a couple's only child was a boy. In 2016 there were 1.15 males for every female in China, one of the most skewed gender ratios in the world.

China's failure is being taken as a lesson by countries such as India, where development is instead being seen as the key to capping population growth.

"China had [a] one child policy. At the time the policy was very successful. They reduced population growth. They have now stopped the policy," said Paswan. "We cannot say if India should implement the two-child policy. No political party will come forward and say that India should adopt it."

This story was first published on CNN.com, "A two-child policy in overpopulated India? It won't work, say experts."