A population policy has long been overdue for Assam, if for no other reason than to keep the focus firmly on wrenching demographic changes the State has been undergoing for decades. The State’s population was 2.67 crore as per the 2001 census. It rose to 3.12 crore in a decade as shown by the 2011 census, thereby clocking a growth rate of nearly 17 percent. Whether due to ubated influx or higher birth rates among immigrant groups, the rapidly growing population of Assam remains a sensitive political issue. But this is not something any responsible government can sit unmindfully over; in a State with scarce resources, population groups fighting for ever smaller shares in the pie is a recipe for debilitating internecine strife. It remains to be seen though, how far the present State government is willing to go to implement a sound population policy, considering the challenges that lie ahead. First of all, the population policy is part of the BJP’s Vision Document, so some opposition parties are likely to sniff a political agenda in targeting minority groups. The debate will grow shriller once the talk veers to sharp spikes in population in nine bordering Muslim-majority districts, as it has done on earlier occasions. Releasing the draft population policy on Sunday to seek public opinion, Fince minister Himanta Biswa Sarma informed that suggestions will be invited till July 15 and the policy will be tabled in the Assembly in August. Since a population policy cannot be coercive (as it was sought to be done during Emergency), the State government is holding out some carrots as well as disincentives to help bring about the desired behavioural changes. It proposes to enforce the two-child norm as an eligibility criteria for government jobs; the norm will also remain in place till end of service. But with ever fewer government openings, this measure can have only limited effectiveness. The policy therefore introduces the disincentives — by applying the two-child norm to employment generation and welfare schemes like tractors to farmers and rural housing. Questions will turally be raised as to how the government will treat present beneficiaries eligible otherwise, but failing to meet this new norm! There is also the proposal to make it mandatory for all candidates contesting elections for panchayats, municipal bodies and autonomous councils held under the State Election Commission.
If the two-child norm is adopted, Assam will join the likes of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh Odisha and Uttarakhand. Though such states have reported positive behavioural changes after enforcing this norm in local elections, other states like Madhya Pradesh, Harya and Himachal Pradesh have withdrawn it. This came about after social activists argued that the move actually encouraged female foeticide and practices like abandoning or refusing to register children. However, with the Supreme Court upholding the two-child limitation, at least court challenges will not be a problem for Dispur. The other focal points of the population policy should ideally be the overall improvement in economic conditions of the people and empowerment of women. Inclusive economic growth not being a guarantee at this stage, the draft policy is rightly focusing on the girl child by proposing to make their education free right up to university level, as well as bring about 50 percent reservation in government jobs and elections. The State Fince minister hopes that this move will also help arrest the school dropout rate among girls. He is also advocating tougher laws to punish violence and sexual crimes against women, as well as raising the legal age of marriage from 18 years for girls and 21 years for boys. However, there should be no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead, which the draft policy has rightly taken note of. In a diverse State like Assam, the responses from various communities will vary, depending on their traditions, customary laws and behaviour patterns. Religious prejudices and conservative values against family planning will have to be dealt with through positive messages (sans overt politics) involving community and religious leaders, elected representatives, NGOs and the media. The condition of medical infrastructure in the State will also be a factor in implementing a viable population policy.