By Sharanya Gopinathan
In late 2015, The Ladies Finger and Khabar Lahariya collaborated on a piece analysing the effects of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, upheld by the Supreme Court in December 2015. That Act mandated a variety of arbitrary and exclusionary things, like that “all candidates standing for panchayat elections in Haryana will have to have completed a prescribed level of schooling to be eligible to run for the post of “panch”” and would also have to fully pay all pending electricity bills, amongst other strange rules.
We asked at the time, if such a thing could happen in Haryana, couldn’t it happen anywhere? We also wondered what would happen if similar rules started being passed in other states, perhaps the one you live in: if it was suddenly mandated that people with traffic violations or diesel cars couldn’t stand for elections because they are polluters of the nation, things like that.
That situation seems to be coming true in bizarre ways. Assam’s state government has now drafted a proposed population policy that’s at the centre of major controversy, and for good reason. The proposed policy seeks to bar people who have more than two children from government jobs and from contesting in panchayat and other local elections. The policy also seeks, a la Haryana (and also Rajasthan) to impose a minimum educational qualification for contesting in these elections.
The draft policy says that “some tribal areas” are responsible for the “demographic challenge”. This fits neatly in to what AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal (MP) said about the proposed policy to The New Indian Express, which is that, “This policy, once implemented, will affect a large number of Muslims, the SC/ST people and the poor.”. Considering that, according to the proposed policy itself, the average family size in Assam is 5.5, it will certainly affect a lot of people across the state, and affect some communities more than others.
If there are indeed certain communities that have larger families than others, barring them from participating in the political process, especially at the local level, seems problematic for obvious reasons. There are several other moves that can help reduce population, like spreading education on family planning, and most of these moves are much better than excluding people of these communities from elections. While no one will come out and say that their policy is designed to deny certain specific groups their rights, if that policy does have a disproportionate effect on some groups, it’s impossible to ignore that.
While almost any move can be couched in terms that may look good on paper, moves like this stop people from participating in the democratic process while claiming to solve another problem. Our answers to rising population shouldn’t infringe on the basic rights of citizens in a democracy, and certainly not in ways that selectively affect specific groups.
The most famous proponent of restricting family size is of course China, which for decades implemented a one-child policy in the country. This rule was applied differently amongst different communities, and in 2016, was replaced by a two-child policy due to the ageing problem caused by the earlier rule. I mean even if it was some rousing success, we don’t need to be playing follow the leader with China when it comes to matters that affect democracy and fundamental rights.