Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Futility of Penalizing the 3rd child

There are talks in the Kerala government circles these days regarding the imposition of the ‘two-child’ norm for couples failing which they will be penalized Rs. 10000 per ‘extra’ child and disqualification of the 3rd child for of free healthcare and education. This rule might be forced to bring down the birth rate further. Kerala already has the lowest birth-rate in India. I sincerely appreciate and approve of their intentions but sadly, they have missed the point. I wish to know whether beggars, commercial sex workers and slum dwellers will be made to shell out the fine for it is always this category of people who seem to have a gaggle of kids with them. Making something compulsory will make people resent it. Moreover, it will add to the workload of our sufficiently stressed law enforcement agencies. Instead, there should be higher emphasis on sex education so that people started making educated choices in their sex lives. We must adopt a sensitive approach towards educating the masses about safe sex and use of birth-prevention methods. Experiments in Uttar Pradesh are already bearing fruit. In Lucknow, a youth-oriented initiative, called Saathiya, is working closely with chemists to educate clients, especially those from weak economic sections of the array of birth control measures available and even reducing the awkwardness associated with the sales of condoms. This has lead to an increase in condom sales, some areas even reporting a 300% jump in the sales of condoms. This project was launched by Private Sector Partnerships for Better Health and USAID, the development funding arm of the US government. A 2006 project called "Condom bindaas bol" was intended to tackle a fall in condom sales in 8 Indian states that represent 45% of the Indian condom market. The more recent launch of the "Condom Condom" ringtone to popularize condoms in These states – Bihar, Chattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal - constitute 40% of India's populace of more than 1 billion. The Kerala government can take a leaf out of these initiatives and promote them instead of cooking up stupid money-minting schemes. The more recent launch of the "Condom Condom" ringtone to popularize the word 'condom' hits bull'e eye. It will undoubtedly help deflate the shame associated with the word in popular usage.

We cannot blindly imitate China and impose a ceiling on the number of children couples can have. China is slowly confronting problems related to an ageing population and low number of youngsters. The one child norm created a preference for boys, which in another 10 to 20 years may translate into higher crime rates by testosterone charged single males unable to find partners. The situation is also grave in countries like Japan, Russia and Germany where employment might take a hit if there aren’t sufficient numbers of young men and women to replace those who retire from active work life. The Japanese Health minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa, went overboard by saying that he wants 'birth-giving machines', aka women, to have more babies. It is easy to imagine the outrage he managed to cause! Germany is concerned about 30% of its adult women being childless by choice; the figure touches 40% in case of female who have completed graduation. The Germans have also debated compensating working parents with €3,000 annually for childcare costs against tax, urging women to have more children. A number of other countries facing declining birthrates have offered similar incentives. Australia offers a $4,000 additional benefit for each child and in recent times has proposed to reimburse all child care expenses for women who desire to work. Numerous European nations, with France, Italy and Poland, have offered some arrangement of bonuses and monthly compensation to families. Closer home, Singapore has a principally bountiful plan: $3,000 for the first child, $9,000 in cash and savings for the second; and up to $18,000 each for the third and fourth. Several Japanese regions, in the face of almost calamitous population loss, are offering rich incentives. Yamatsuri, a 7000 strong municipality, north of Tokyo, offers parents $4,600 for the birth of a child and $460 a year for a decade. In a throwback to the Stalin era, the Duma intends to tax childless couples either to encourage Russians to have more children, or make childless Russians help absorb the costs of the government’s maternal capital program, which gives 250,000 rubles (9,200USD) to mothers for the birth of another child. In fact, for every sixteen Russian deaths, only 10 Russian tots join the population. All the mentioned countries are now confronting the challenge of supporting the retirement of its seniors who are turning into an unproductive, economic burden in the absence of youth.

These nations mentioned here are naturally at the other extreme of the demographic spectrum, their problem being the antithesis of our problem. The irony of demographics across different continents should teach everyone some lessons. Undeniably, we do need to stop our people from breeding like vermin but that does not imply that we start imposing fines. The countries with low birth rates also have 97 to 99% literacy amongst their women. The government can do much good by improving sanitation and other facilities in schools so as to keep girls in school. The lack of toilets is often cited as a reason for girls dropping out early from schools. According to a survey conducted by National University of Educational Planning and Administration, only 37.42 per cent of the 11,24,033 schools in 604 districts had toilets for girl students. The absence of toilets can be a major disincentive for pubescent girls to pursue schooling. If local governance bodies like Gram Parishads and Zilla Parishads start ensuring that the local schools have separate functional toilets for girls and boys, that may help keep girl longer in schools, thereby increasing literacy and decreasing the chances of early marriage, often responsible for high fertility. All Indian states should adopt the scheme in Bihar, Mukhya Mantri Balika Cycle Yojana (Chief Minister’s Cycle for Girls Scheme), and provide cycles to girls for going to school so that transport between their residences and schools does not prove to be a hindrance for education. The Indo German Watershed Development Programme in Maharashtra has shown that watershed development in villages leads to reduction in migration due to lack of employment and leads to women’s empowerment. This also leads to improvement in literacy levels as children get to go to one school for an academic year and do not have to miss out on school due to their parents’ search for employment form town to town. The IGWDP has successfully shown that within 2-3 years of the implementation to a watershed management program, the demand for education amongst women rises. Higher levels of education do transform fertility rates as well as income levels. Better facilities for women will encourage more women to pursue careers. Dividing time between work and family, inevitably calls for a small family. That will predictably cause people to have just one or two children. Even if some families opt for bigger sizes that should not pose a problem.

Improvement in literacy levels cannot certainly be the only solution to high levels of fertility. There must be adequate efforts to improve the perception of the girl child. If people continue to consider daughters as liabilities, then early marriage to get rid of the ‘burden’ will be inescapable. The preference for sons also leads people to keep having more girl children in order to beget a boy. There also lies one cause of high fertility. But urbanization of semi-rural and rural areas may help curb such extremist reproductive behaviour over the coming decades although it may not reduce the bias against girls. Affluent areas of Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi continue to have some of the worst sex ratios in the country, but at least the families remain small. There must exist efforts at the grassroots levels to convince people that educated women are beneficial to the family. Very often, people favour less educated girls for a daughter-in-law as they believe that better learned girls are disobedient and headstrong. This is far from the truth. Educated women take better care of their families as compared to uneducated women.

Keeping in mind the myriad problems of gender and perception of education that we have in this country, a fine to bring down the birth rate with prove futile. Those living below, on and slightly above the poverty line will be de facto exempted from such fine. People will not be treated equally when it comes to imposition of such fines. The attempts to reduce the birth rate should be sustainable and must be implemented in such a manner that we do not end up like China, Germany, Japan and Australia in about 40 years. Otherwise, it is our generation that might become a burden for our children who may not be sufficient in number to support an ageing population.

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