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Noni Raja was married in 2004 at the age of 20, then gave birth to a son a year later. After having two more children – a girl and a boy – Ms. Raja did something unexpected. She caught a bus into Mahoba, the nearest town, and presented herself at the hospital for a tubal ligation. She spent a couple of hours recovering, took the bus home and informed her startled in-laws that she had had “the operation.” (Simon de Trey-White For The Globe and Mail)
Noni Raja was married in 2004 at the age of 20, then gave birth to a son a year later. After having two more children – a girl and a boy – Ms. Raja did something unexpected. She caught a bus into Mahoba, the nearest town, and presented herself at the hospital for a tubal ligation. She spent a couple of hours recovering, took the bus home and informed her startled in-laws that she had had “the operation.” (Simon de Trey-White For The Globe and Mail)

STEPHANIE NOLEN

Why India’s acclaim for protecting reproductive rights rings hollow Add to ...

Ms. Raja is the best-educated woman in the village – she finished 10th grade before her health-worker training – but she says with a sigh that it’s sometimes hard to explain the surgery to her neighbours. Research from the Centre for Health and Social Justice in Delhi shows that state governments aggressively target women from the poorest aboriginal and Dalit (once known as “untouchable”) communities.

Those who undergo the operation may not understand what is being done, but they know that there can be severe consequences if they do not comply with the two-child norm.

“We’re on the track to be just like China,” says Leena Uppal, an earnest activist who co-ordinates the National Coalition Against Two-Child Norm and Coercive Population Policies. “It’s entirely coercive – for the women, for the health worker, who will lose her job if she doesn’t bring in enough people. The whole focus is on closing off wombs, of making sure these women don’t have any more babies.”

China’s one-child campaign, adopted in 1979, forced women to have abortions if they conceived again without state approval, or fined couples heavily, especially in urban areas. India’s policy involves no such direct punishments, but its impact can be harsh in a place such as Kamrora.

Parents with more than two children are denied access to everything from a subsidy for babies delivered in hospital and school bursaries to the right to run for political office. A law now being considered would deny them access to subsidized food – a tactic The Times of India, the country’s largest newspaper, recently reported, favourably, on its front page.

The problem, says Abhijit Das, an obstetrician who runs the Centre for Health and Social Justice, is that, while the government’s policy has changed since Mrs. Gandhi’s era, when the rural poor were seen as strangling the country’s chances of progress, its mindset has not. There is a genuine commitment to ending poverty and a sincere desire to see families better able to care for their children. Yet officials based in air-conditioned offices in the capital still believe that ignorant rural poor people are dragging the country down by mindlessly having babies, and simply do not know what is best.

“The construction of the population problem is a middle-class creation,” Dr. Das says, “and it has caste and class distinctions: The ‘wrong’ people are the ones who have eight kids.”

In this, India is not unlike the West, where there is public debate about the higher birth rate of “welfare moms,” aboriginal people and immigrants. The idea is entrenched, and it results in policy entirely disconnected from the reality of life in a place such as Kamrora, where families have many good reasons for having more than two children.

First, mortality rates remain high – children, as Ms. Raja will tell you starkly, die here. Almost one in 10 do not live to see their fifth birthday. Subsistence agriculture remains the only employment option, so the young are needed to work in the fields and later, in the absence of any real social-welfare net, to care for their parents in old age.

And couples have children because there is no way not to have them: Those unwilling to undergo sterilization – newlyweds, for example – have access to no other form of birth control.

The two-child norm flies in the face of the idea of “reproductive rights,” Ms. Uppal notes. “What is a more basic right than deciding how many children to have – and when to have them?”

It also punishes women when the decision is not really theirs to make. Ms. Raja’s family expected her to have a third child, but when she did, she became ineligible for a central government allowance to provide extra food while pregnant and breastfeeding (a policy supposedly aimed at poor, Dalit women like her). As well, she lost the right to run for the local council, and her daughter was disqualified from a bursary program designed to boost girls’ education.

The policy is enforced by local-level officials, often haphazardly. As part of her health-worker job, Ms. Raja has succeeded in obtaining the bursary for having a baby in a maternity centre for a number of women with more than two children, even though it is theoretically denied. At the same time, she says, other women in Kamrora have been denied a state bonus for mothers who have daughters – a measure designed to discourage sex-selective abortion, an especially grim side effect of the two-child policy. The desire for sons, to carry on a family name and inherit land and assets, is so strong that families may abort girls to get the two boys they want and stay within the limit.

India already has one of the world’s more sharply skewed sex ratios. As in China, millions of women are “missing” from the normal population balance. And yet the mandarins in charge of its population policy reject any comparison with China.

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