Today sterilisation targets of that sort tend to be consigned to the past (with notable exceptions) and are recalled with a shudder. Yet efforts to keep a lid on India’s population, which is set to overtake China’s by 2030, are still carried out via more subtle policies. One curious example is the notion of India’s having a “two-child norm”, or “2CN”, which pops up in a range of welfare schemes. According to its principle, which started to appear in state laws in the early 1990s and has since gained traction, only Indians with small families should be eligible for certain handouts and political roles.
It can be one of the conditions that shape the many new “conditional cash-transfer schemes”, an increasingly popular form of welfare that pays poor Indians to change their behaviour. In some states, Janani Suraksha Yojana, a national scheme launched in 2005 that distributes a cash bonus to women who go to hospital to give birth, allows mothers to claim their 600-1,400 rupees ($11-25) handout for only their first two live births. Across the country another handout, 500 rupees for each safe home birth, is limited to two deliveries. Another national scheme, launched on a pilot basis last year, pays women to attend ante-natal check-ups. But it covers only a mother’s first two children.
At the state level, matters become curiouser and curiouser. The cut-off appears in laws totally unconnected to family welfare. Some states, including large players such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, bar people with more than two children from running in village and district council elections. The rule does not, some Indians note with a raised eyebrow, apply to the higher-ranking state politicians who pass such laws. In Maharashtra, home to both India’s commercial capital Mumbai and swathes of sugarcane fields, a 2005 law gives farmers with more than two children lower irrigation subsidies.
The two-child norm thus seeks to reward, rather than force, family planning. It is a far cry from China’s one-child policy or India’s own past. Yet critics say the main outcome of its application is to exclude the poorest Indians—who tend to have more children—from all sorts of welfare schemes. Leena Uppal, of the National Coalition Against 2CN and Coercive Population Policies, adds that, in a country where many parents see having fewer children as having fewer chances to produce a son, discouraging larger families simply encourages female foeticide.
Bhim Raskar of the Resource and Support Centre for Development, an NGO that oversees various projects in Maharashtra's villages, says those who wish to tame India’s population growth must address the problems that give rise to large families. Weak public services, especially health care, give parents reason to have several children, as an insurance policy against some of them dying. Poor women’s rights and education spur parents to procreate until they have at least one son. Mr Raskar shakes his head at the idea of imposing a two-child norm from above. “Laws should be the last weapon, but here it is being used as the first weapon. You need to try to understand [a situation], and then change will come.” Banyan for The Economist