While a return to the sanctioned forced sterilizations of the Emergency would be politically unfeasible, Indian support for disincentives for large families remains. Neo‐Malthusian thinking is still widespread, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Modi’s August 2019 remarks about a “population explosion.” However, Modi and his cabinet colleagues have also repeatedly hailed the advantages of India’s demographic dividend. University of Cambridge economist Joan Robinson famously said that whatever was true of India, the opposite was also true. This is reflected in the huge variations in different parts of a very diverse country, leading to countless internal contradictions that can make nonsense of many categorical theses.
Neo‐Malthusian thinking certainly is still embedded in many of the government’s policies. But recent boasting about the demographic dividend reflects a Robinsonian internal contradiction, as the country takes pride in high fertility even as it maintains policies to combat it. Anti‐Muslim bias is another confounding factor influencing population policy while being distinct from neo‐Malthusian concerns. Pride in the demographic dividend will hopefully help to erode and end neo‐Malthusian rhetoric and policies.
Population and Revenue‐Sharing among India’s States. India’s Finance Commission recommends how taxes that are levied by the central government should be shared between the central government and different states, based on several criteria, including population size. In the 1970s, the wealthier southern states, which had lower birth rates, complained that the population size criterion penalized low‐fertility states and rewarded the northern states for their perceived failures in population control. Successive Finance Commissions based their revenue‐sharing formulae on state populations listed in the 1971 census and not the latest available figures to avoid such penalization.
However, the 14th Finance Commission, which was appointed in 2013, eroded the advantage of the low‐fertility states somewhat. The 15th Finance Commission, which was appointed in 2017, went further and abolished references to the 1971 census altogether. To assuage outraged southern states, the commission also included some benefits for states with lower birth rates. On balance, however, the high‐fertility northern states gained enormously in revenue. That represented a substantial rollback of the traditional neo‐Malthusian policy pursued by the Indian government.
Partisan politics also played a role in the government’s decisionmaking. The BJP is popular in the high‐fertility northern states but has almost no support in some of the southern states. By switching from the 1971 population levels to the 2011 levels, the BJP greatly increased the revenue share of the northern states and reduced the revenue share of southern states.
Neo‐Malthusian thinking has certainly dominated Indian policy for decades. But the rise of the BJP has introduced new trends. Many BJP stalwarts have called for Hindus to have larger families to stop the Muslim share of the population from rising. In India, Muslims tend to have larger families and so their share of India’s population has risen from 9.8 percent in the 1951 census to 14.2 percent in the 2011 census. Prime Minister Modi has sought to bring attention to this trend. An official slogan to encourage smaller families in India since the 1970s has been “hum do, hamare do,” meaning “we are two and have two children.”218 Noting that some Muslim men have four wives, Modi quipped derisively in a 2002 speech that the equivalent Muslim slogan was “hum paanch, hamare pachees,” meaning “we are five and have 25 children.”219
India needs to build on the momentum of successive finance commissions rolling back neo‐Malthusian biases in revenue sharing by abandoning neo‐Malthusian biases in all policy areas, irrespective of partisan interests.
Two‐Child Policy Gaining Momentum. Assam will become the latest Indian state to disqualify people with more than two children from holding government jobs beginning in January 2021, and several recent proposals calling for a national two‐child policy present the possibility that the country may move to adopt such a policy nationwide.220 In January 2020, Mohan Bhagwat, the head of a prominent nationalist volunteer organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has 5–6 million members including Prime Minister Modi, said that the RSS would shift its focus to promoting a national two‐child policy.221 As noted, Indian Muslims tend to have more children than Hindus. So, a penalty on large families is a not‐so‐subtle attempt by the Hindu nationalist BJP to discriminate against Muslims. Clearly, neo‐Malthusianism is not the sole motive behind the policy, even when neo‐Malthusian language is invoked as a justification for the policy.
Consider the constitutional amendment bill introduced February 7, 2020, by Shri Anil Desai, a member of the upper house of India’s Parliament and of a regional political party allied with the BJP. The bill proposes to promote small families with a mix of positive and negative incentives. The bill is justified with neo‐Malthusian reasoning, claiming that a “population explosion will cause many problems for our future generations.” It goes on to read: “Today, there is … a need to … discourage [couples] from producing more children by withdrawing tax concessions, imposing heavy taxes and by making other punitive provisions for violations.”222
A distinct but likeminded proposal is the Population Regulation Bill introduced July 12, 2019, by Shri Rakesh Sinha, a Parliament member who also belongs to the BJP and is an associate professor at the University of Delhi. That bill would grant various benefits to couples who undergo sterilization after two children and enact punitive measures on families with more than two children. That bill is also justified with neo‐Malthusian reasoning, reading in part: “Given the limited … ecological and economic resources at hand, it has become an urgent need to do objective analysis and intervene to plan the process of demographic change for the coming generation[s] of future India.”223
Against the Two‐Child Policy. The fears of “population explosion” in India are misplaced. The country’s total fertility rate in 2017 (the most recent year for which there is data) was 2.24 births per woman and falling, so it is on track to soon reach the replacement fertility level of 2.1 births per woman.224 If India follows the pattern seen in other countries as they grow richer, the fertility rate will continue to fall until it is beneath the replacement level. In other words, India is on target to stabilize or decrease its population without any need for punitive measures.
Enacting laws that punish, to varying degrees, large families is not only pointless but may further exacerbate the problems that the government is attempting to combat of illegal sex‐selective abortion and, less commonly, infanticide. Therefore, recent enthusiasm among some policymakers and activists for the introduction of punitive measures for large families is misplaced. India’s government should avoid enacting a nationwide two‐child policy, and individual Indian states with two‐child policies should repeal those policies.
The government should also rethink its rhetoric in light of the recently established advantages of a demographic dividend, notes Aiyar.225 Fertility remains high in states like Uttar Pradesh Bihar and Jharkhand. Until recently, many neo‐Malthusians criticized those states for allegedly threatening India’s future prosperity, but those states will become important providers of the country’s labor force. Rising living standards have already reduced fertility rates in most Indian states to below replacement level, and many Indians now view the high‐fertility states as serving an unanticipated national purpose. No disincentives should be implemented to discourage small families, but all disincentives for large families should be lifted.
Correcting Malapportionment. In 2026, instead of again extending the freeze first instituted during the Emergency that has resulted in malapportionment of political representation in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament should reflect the country’s changing demographics.
A central tenet of democratic representation is the notion of “one person, one vote.” The freeze violates that tenet by valuing a person’s vote according to the relative fecundity of those residing in the same state, amplifying the voices of those living in low‐population growth states and devaluing those living in states with high birth rates.
Furthermore, reducing political representation for high birth rate states is an ineffective form of incentivization that is vanishingly unlikely to alter any individual family’s behavior.
Malapportionment of political representation intended to punish states with high birth rates is both undemocratic and pointless and should be corrected.