Last month, Union Minister of State for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, and senior BJP leader Giriraj Singh chose to pontificate on the need for sterilisation in the Indian Union using the Hindi term "nasbandi", thus bringing back the memory of the draconian sterilisation initiatives during the emergency regime of Indira Gandhi.
Apart from adding a rhyming effect to the term "notebandi", the Hindi term for demonetisation, what he said is that demonetisation had to be followed up with sterilisation (nasbandi) and that all sections of the society should adopt it. To be fair, he did not speak of forced sterilisation, but he marked out "population explosion" as a problem in the "country" and laid out his prescription to solve it. While he is free to suggest solutions, however outlandish, there is a problem in it. There is a population explosion problem in the country only if by "country" he means his homeland Bihar. The Indian Union does not have a “population explosion” problem. Let me explain what I mean.
It is fashionable in Delhi’s power circles to characterise this or that as a "national" problem. The Indian Union is a federal union of extremely diverse and different ethnolinguistic nationalities, whose achievements and failings also differ. Thus, all such cases of "national problem" need to be analysed carefully because more often than not, characterisation of something as a "national problem" by such powerful people from the Delhi power circuit leads to "national" policies to provide "national" solutions. And since it affects a huge number of people including those who people like Singh may not have in mind when they evoke the "national" in a problem. Probably because the idea of their "nation" stems from their backyard that may be their "nation" but not everybody else’s. So, let’s look at his so-called "national problem" called "population explosion".
The total fertility rate (TFR) is a good measure of future population growth trends. TFR is defined as "the number of children who would be born per woman (or per 1,000 women) if she/they were to pass through the childbearing years bearing children according to a current schedule of age-specific fertility rates". A TFR less than 2.1 is generally considered to be a below replacement rate, which means, when TFR falls below that number and that is sustained, in future, the population actually decreases. In areas with very high mortality, the replacement TFR rate can be somewhat higher. What is the TFR scenario across different states of the Indian Union? West Bengal's Total Fertility rate is 1.64, which is among the lowest in the world — same as Netherlands, Canada and Denmark. The Dravidian homelands do not have a problem. Tamil Nadu and Kerala are similar to West Bengal at around 1.7. Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana, since post state division data is not still available), Karnataka and Maharashtra are around 1.8, comparable to Belgium, Finland and Norway. All of these are better than USA and UK. Thus, these states and most others, which comprise the whole of the Deccan peninsula and the East, do not have a "population explosion" and thus do not share the "national problem". If anything, they have the opposite problem – of having TFR below replacement level.
However, Singh claimed that the Indian Union "adds population equal to Australia every year". That is also true but only partially. There are only six states with a TFR higher than the national average of 2.34 — who add so much population that they reverse the first world level TFRs of West Bengal and states that form the Deccan peninsula. They are Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. All of them have Hindi as the primary official language, I mention that because the language ties them into a cultural sphere that is the source of the so-called "national problem". Thus Singh’s "national" problem is a Hindi-belt problem. Hence, if solutions are to be sought, it is to be sought by breaking it down to these political-cultural units and then identify what exactly about them is problematic. And that is where it gets tricky.
This Hindi-belt population growth is a drag on the meagre resources of the economy, whose revenues are disproportionately generated by states who do not have a population problem. Moreover, when Hindi-belt problems arise, what Delhi does is transfer huge funds from non-Hindi states to Hindi states to solve a Hindi-belt problem. It is also useful to see why this problem becomes a "national problem" in Singh’s mind. The six problem states contributed to 60% of the seats that the BJP won in 2014, while seat-wise, all the seats in these states (not only those won by the BJP) make-up less than 37% of the total number of Lok Sabha seats. This means that the problem states have an undue hold on the composition of the Union legislature. Hence, it is not unnatural that this disproportionate hold on the Union government leads its functionaries to use the "idea of India" and "nation" to falsely generalise the problems and then devise ways for the non-problem states to pick up the bill when it comes to paying for the solution to such problems.
There is another aspect to this. Since no internal migration controls exist between the states of the Indian Union, the economic and social gains that come with a low TFR are denied to the low TFR states. The high TFR states thus send across people to low TFR states, thus burdening low TFR states with the problem of high TFR states that Giriraj mischaracterised as a "national" one. In fact, such is the scale of the problem that among the top 10 linguistic groups in the Indian Union only Hindi-speaking population's percentage as a proportion of the total population of the Indian Union has increased every decade for the last 5 decades. Apart from the economic costs, this aspect along with uncontrolled migration has grave consequences for the distinct socio-cultural fabric of almost all non-Hindi states. The problem does not speak its name due to political correctness, but it is so acute that NDA partner Telugu Desam Party’s supremo and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu has highlighted the TFR differences as a huge source of the problem.
However, Singh’s apparently sudden observations on "population explosion" have a more sinister dog-whistle element. Because, just two months before voicing his concerns about "population explosion", Singh had suggested that Hindus should increase their population by producing more children. Thus, perhaps what he had in mind was a Muslim population growth issue that he chose to couch in terms of a "national problem". However, Giriraj Singh doesn’t know, perhaps due to his Hindi-belt centric view of his “nation”, that the Muslim population growth rates in most non-Hindi states are lower than the Hindu population growth rates of the six main Hindi belt states. Thus, if we combine his October prescription and his December concern with actual population growth trends, the only population explosion that might please Giriraj Singh is that of Hindi-speaking Hindus, given that group also happens to be the BJP’s primary support base.
The false generalisation of Hindi-belt problems as "national" problems goes beyond this specific episode. Take the example of Indo-Pak rivalry. It is not uniformly popular. There are anti-Pak Hindi films but no one has heard of an anti-Pak Bhojpuri or Bangla film. There simply is no market for it. More often than not, looking at things always from an Indian Union-wide perspective hides more than it reveals about the question at hand. This was also evident during the recent English New Year molestation cases in Bengaluru and Delhi. Following those unfortunate events, media was abuzz with the talk about the behaviour of "Indian" men in urban centres. Delhi is so off the charts compared to other major metros (which happen to be non-Hindi speaking majority) when it comes to the rate of reported rape, stalking, child rape, abduction, workplace sexual harassment, etc, that a characterization of the men in Kolkata or Chennai (both cities whose reported rape rates are more than 20 times lesser than Delhi!) in light of the behaviour of men in Delhi is doing them a huge disservice in front of the world.
Yes, rapes occur everywhere and one rape is a rape too many. And rape is a common global problem and so is patriarchy, but attitudes differ and so do the consequences due to those differences. Delhi with a reported rape rate that is 47 times greater than the rate of Kolkata and 9 times greater than the rate in Bengaluru do not share the same set of problems. Because, rates matter. Because it means that a woman in Delhi is 47 times more likely to get raped than a woman in Kolkata. And hence, it is more useful to talk about Delhi’s men separately from Kolkata or Chennai’s men. Because if we mischaracterise the problem under the garb of "Indian men" that puts Haryana and Mizoram in one basket, we will end up advocating a similar set of solutions for men who rape at a rate 47 times higher.
The idea of "national" needs to be relooked in the face of the real differences in the real world. Decentralised policymaking, which in turn means state specific policymaking, can lead to maximum benefits out of policy interventions. However, from the tendencies of the present Union government through its imposition of uniform policies via Delhi-based technocratic bodies like Niti Ayog, it is clear that in its pursuit of the "national", it has anything but the real people and their real differences in mind. This has to be rationally countered by pointing to the diverse realities and trajectories of the various states of the Indian Union. So, next time someone tells you about something national, ask him or her to break it down to the level of states and then make your own conclusions.