After 35 years, China is set to change its one-child policy, allowing all couples to have at most two children. Since its introduction in 1980 with the aim of slowing population growth in the world’s most populous country, an estimated 400 million births have been prevented in China.
From 5.5 births per woman in 1970, the country’s fertility rate is now well below the replacement level of 2.1. The policy also led to countless forced abortions, maternal and child deaths, untold trauma especially to mothers, and one of the world’s most skewed sex ratios.
Yet, it is difficult to offer unqualified praise for China’s decision. For one, the limit on family size has simply moved from one child to two children, and coercive restrictions on what should be a private decision remains.
Second, the decision has been taken in response to the decline in China’s working population relative to its elderly population. China’s dependancy ratio — the ratio of children and elderly to its working age population — has declined from 63.4 in 1950 to 34.5 in 2010, as against 56.3 for India, meaning far fewer working people support a far larger number of dependants.
All countries will move through cycles of demographic dividends followed by rapid ageing, and must plan for their own unique challenges without intervening in family lives to engineer change.
India too has had its experiments with state coercion in limiting family size. Undoubtedly the worst of these were the horrific violations during the Emergency, when Sanjay Gandhi spearheaded a sterilisation campaign that included carting off thousands of men against their wishes to camps, where many died.
In the late-1990s and early-2000s, 11 States enacted laws restricting eligibility in local body elections to persons with two or fewer children; research shows that this move did have the impact of lowering family sizes in the general population, but it also worsened the sex ratio.
India’s push for female sterilisation as the preferred means of family planning, with “targets” set for field workers, financial incentives and limited information for the impoverished women undergoing these surgical procedures, often nudges sterilisation drives from voluntary into coercive territory. None of these methods will work without high human costs that the poorest should not be paying. Every country in the world, and India’s southern States, lowered fertility rates without state coercion but as an immediate effect of education for women, better access to health, and rising incomes. Right-wing organisations in India even today raise the bogey of the Muslim population explosion, despite all evidence to the contrary, and have made a case for forced family planning. China — and India’s latent fascists — would do well to abandon forced limits on family size, and allow human progress to chart its natural course.
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