DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
The BJP-led government in Assam has mooted a Population Policy in terms of which the state would provide incentives to families with two children in so far as securing government jobs are concerned and in reservation of seats for higher and technical education. Articulating the proposed policy, Finance and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the state government neither intends to compel anyone to adhere to the two-children norm nor would it use coercion as a means to implement the Policy. Basically, what the Sonowal government intends to do is to tempt people to go for small two-child families with enough incentives. In principle, there should be no problem with this Policy.
The proposed Policy obviously is meant to target people in the whole of Assam. But, to put it bluntly, the state government must be concerned at the large family sizes among the Muslim community of migrant origin who are mostly concentrated in the chars or the sandbars in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The districts where people of this community are largely settled for decades now are Barpeta, Dhubri, Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Hailakandi, and Nagaon.
I would like to see the Policy and its potential impact on the population in Assam purely from a socio-economic point of view and would appeal to everyone to keep religion and politics aside on this. And yes, if we look at it only from a socio-economic viewpoint, the maximum impact is expected on Muslims in the chars. Some critical statistics would be relevant: Assam’s population increased from 2.66 crore in 2001 to 3.12 crore in 2011. If we look at the Muslim population figures in Assam we find that it increased from 30.9 per cent of the State’s population in 2001 to 34.2 per cent in 2011. Nationally, the percentage of Muslims in India’s total population went up from 13.4 per cent in 2001 to 14.2 per cent in 2011. Therefore, Assam clearly witnessed a significant rise in Muslim population in the decade 2001-2011.
We shall look at more statistics later, but one must understand that there is a direct link between poverty and population. Poverty leads to an increase in population in communities that are economically and educationally backward and those who do not enjoy the benefits of basic amenities that a state can provide like healthcare, roads, electricity and educational institutions. And, a high population leads to poverty in such communities. It is a vicious cycle.
Why could the Char dwellers have large family sizes? There may be several reasons but one cannot deny the high infant or child mortality rate as one of the reasons for families having seven to ten children. The general apprehension is that a few of the children could possibly die early and if that happens, the rest of the children could live to work and earn to take care of the parents and elders in their old age. This fear could be one of the reasons for parents going for many children. The child mortality rate in Assam is high at 55 per 1000 as against the national average of 42 per 1000. Lack of healthcare facilities in the char areas and other such areas with poor amenities could have contributed to such a high child mortality figure. And yes, a study conducted in the chars of Kamrup and Barpeta showed the fertility rate in these areas was 4.56 compared to 2.4 in Assam as a whole.
It is important to look at the 2011 population figures. Among the critical elements made public by the Census authorities is the fact that nine districts in Assam now have a majority Muslim population. These nine districts are Barpeta, Dhubri, Karimganj, Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Hailakandi, Nagaon and Morigaon. According to the 2001 Census, six districts in Assam were Muslim-dominated. The three districts which became Muslim majority during the period 2001-2011 are Darrang, Bongaigaon and Morigaon.
Dhubri district has the highest Muslim population in Assam. According to the 2011 Census, it has a Muslim population of 79.67 per cent, up from 74.29 per cent in 2001. In Barpeta district, the Muslim population rose from 59.3 per cent in 2001 to 70.73 per cent in 2011, indicating a population growth of more than 11 per cent. In Karimganj district, the Muslim population has grown to 56.26 per cent in 2011 as compared to 52.3 per cent in 2001. In Goalpara district, the Muslim population in 2011 touched 57.52 per cent, up from 53.71 per cent in 2001. The Muslim population in Hailakandi rose from 57.6 per cent in 2001 to 60.31 per cent in 2011, and in Nagaon, it rose from 50.99 per cent in 2001 to 55.35 per cent in 2011.
The three districts where Muslims were not in a majority earlier were Bongaigaon, Morigaon and Darrang. According to the 2001 Census, Bongaigaon had 38.5 per cent Muslim population, Morigaon 47.6 per cent and Darrang 35.5 per cent. Now, the 2011 Census states that Bongaigaon has 50.22 per cent Muslim population (a growth of about 12 per cent); Morigaon has 52.56 per cent (a growth of about 5 per cent) and Darrang has 64.33 per cent Muslim population (a growth of about 29 per cent).
I would say the population policy has been mooted by the Assam Government at the right time. But, it will work automatically if development reaches the chars and other economically backward and poorly-connected areas in the State. What the chars need are roads, bridges, healthcare, educational institutions, electricity, and market linkages to their agricultural produce, besides skill development that can provide its youth livelihood options.
The Assam Government will have to begin by going on an awareness overdrive and work along with community leaders and the clerics in the chars. Secondly, the state government would do well to actually give the people two to three years time to go for the small-family programme. If Dispur is to say we would pass the Policy in the State Assembly in the coming winter session and thereafter we would start our incentive or dis-incentive schemes, it would be a bit too harsh. The idea will click but religion and politics must be kept away from it. After all, every right-thinking Muslim and their community leaders must work for the uplift of the community and welcome any steps that can help them economically to embark on the road to progress and empowerment.