Punjab's plan to bring in 2-child norm for panchayat polls is outdated, will only marginalise Dalits and young women

When the chief minister of Punjab Capt. Amarinder Singh announced a 50 percent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), as against 33 percent in many other states, it was seen as a bold step towards empowering women in a state that has featured poorly in terms of child sex ratio for long. Punjab happens to be the state with the highest Scheduled Caste population (31 percent). Seen in this light, the marginalised sections were expected to reap huge benefits by participating in greater numbers in the decision-making processes of the local self-governance bodies.

However, all the anticipated gains of this policy decision will come to a naught if the two-child-norm for the PRIs is implemented, as proposed by the Rural Development and Panchayat Minister of Punjab, Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, who was also instrumental in bringing 50 percent reservation for women.

Bajwa said recently, “We are planning to bring the agenda (of implementing the two-child norm in PRIs) before the Cabinet soon. It will go a long way towards encouraging people to keep a check on the increasing population and stop putting a burden on our limited resources.”

The state government plans to go through the provisions of the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act to amend the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act. According to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, “No person shall be a sarpanch or a panch of a gram panchayat or a member of a panchayat samiti or zila parishad or continue as such who…has more than two living children.” Bajwa added that he would suggest that the Aashirwad scheme, known as the Shagun scheme earlier, which provides assistance of Rs 21,000 for the marriage of a girl child, be extended only to families with just two living children. Election to the PRIs are due in July in Punjab.

 Punjabs plan to bring in 2-child norm for panchayat polls is outdated, will only marginalise Dalits and young women

Representational image. Getty images

The two child norm is outdated for Punjab

The two-child norm came as policy solution in India after the census of 1991 showed a high population growth rate for the period 1981-91. The K Karunakaran Committee suggested the adoption of two-child norm for states with a high population growth rate in 1992. A few states like Rajasthan, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh etc. adopted the policy.

The population growth rate has come down substantially since 1991. The annual growth rate between 2001- 2011 in Punjab, stood at 1.29 compared to 1.89, in 1991. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR)— another figure of importance – that indicates the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime, also shows positive trends. The overall objective in India was to obtain a TFR of 2.1, which meant that each couple (2 persons) would be replaced by their 2 children. The TFR of Punjab is 1.62 ( Rural 1.63, Urban 1.59) presently, which shows that couples in Punjab have less than replacement fertility.

Despite lower TFR, the population grows, because the percentage of fertile couples is greater. Children from the high TFR era are now fertile adults. Couples have fewer children today, but there are many more fertile couples per thousand population. Earlier, the proportion of children in the population was higher, now it is the youth.

The intent behind the two child norm was to bring down the number of births which come after two births — 3rd, 4th or above. In Punjab, more than 82 percent of all births are 1st and 2nd order births, and would not be affected by the two-child norm. Also, while the TFR in Punjab is 1.62, the desired TFR is 1.37. This means that one in four couples has a child that they did not want but was born because contraceptives were not made available. The communities which have more children include Dalits (21.6 percent) and Muslims (45 percent), or those couples where the woman has no schooling (41.1 percent). These categories have higher numbers of 3rd order births and above.

Dr Abhijit Das, Director, Centre for Health and Social Justice, New Delhi, expresses concern over the proposed two-child norm in a state like Punjab. “The population trend in the state shows a steadily declining trend, so a two- child norm, if actually introduced, may cause much more harm and yield little in terms of population growth rate reduction.” He suggests that a much sounder policy measure to reduce the population growth rate would be to encourage spacing methods among young couples before they have their second child. Centre for Health and Social Justice, in 2009, conducted a study “Responding to the Two- Child Norm: Barriers and Opportunities in the Campaign to Combat Target Oriented Population Policies in the post ICPD India, in collaboration with The Community Oriented Public Health Practice Programme at The University of Washington School of Public Health, USA.

Why did neighbouring states discard two-child-norm?

Interestingly, both Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, the neighbouring states of Punjab, eliminated the two-child norm from PRIs after facing opposition from women’s groups. “In Himachal Pradesh, we found that older women benefitted because they had their children—sometimes more than three or four— before the cut off date. The policy went against young women, defeating the very purpose of empowering women,” observes Subhash Mendhapurkar, founder, Sutra, a Himachal Pradesh-based NGO working for women empowerment.

In Haryana, close to 200 petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the provisions of the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, were filed in the Supreme Court, but they were dismissed. The apex court said that the two-child norm “is in national interest to check the growth of population by casting disincentives even through legislation”. India is a signatory to the Cairo Programme of Action which states that all couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so. The apex court’s decision went against the spirit of Cairo Programme of Action, 1994.

Caught between contradictory stands and lack of support, a Madhya Pradesh-based NGO – Mahila Chetna Manch— took up a study in 2001-02 in five states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, selecting a total of 113 disqualified persons due to the two-child norm from 21 districts. Out of these, 40 respondents were chosen for in-depth study to examine the consequences of the imposition of the two-child norm. The respondents selected were those who (or whose wives) underwent abortion or sex selection tests, and whose wives were deserted. “The limited analysis of the data collected suggests that a majority of the disqualified were young, poor, from backward communities and illiterate. The study raised concerns about human and democratic rights, equity, social justice and gender.” (EPW, 6 January, 2006 , “Two-Child Norm Victimising the Vulnerable?”)

Sukhwinder Singh, Associate Professor, CRRID, Chandigarh, who conducted studies on PRIs in close to 15 states, says, “The two-child norm led to a lot of proxy representatives in PRIs. A number of cases came to light where the office-bearer disowned his own third child, raised questions about his wife’s character, or gave the child for adoption.”

The son fixation

Das reiterates that the two-child norm will have an adverse impact on the sex ratio in a state like Punjab. Both Haryana and Himachal Pradesh removed the norm after discovering its ill-effects on the declining sex ratio. “Natural processes would mean every third couple with two children would have two daughters, but this seems difficult in Punjab, where there are many districts where the child sex ratio is lower than 850. Very few couples would opt to have two girls.” In other states where the two-child norm is enforced, the third child often faces neglect, deprived from immunisation and other benefits. As such, women are not decision-makers in matters of fertility, especially in rural areas. “If the current leadership in Punjab wishes not to discriminate against its younger Dalits and other marginalised communities and cares about the empowerment of women from marginalised communities, it would not consider a two-child norm,” adds Das.

Pushpinder Grewal, deputy director, Rural Development and Panchayat, who is to oversee free and fair conduct of panchayat elections in July, says that only 50 percent reservation of the women candidates and the proportionate reservation of the SC candidates (that comes to 31 percent at the state level) is applicable in this election. So far, there is no amendment in the Act to implement the two-child norm on the ground.

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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2018 21:52:47 IST