Assam mulls over rolling out two-child policy

Indian state aims to curb population growth, but critics say it targets Muslims and the poor

The Indian state of Assam is looking to introduce a two-child limit to control its population, denying government jobs to anyone with more than two children.

But critics of the draft policy accuse the government of targeting Muslims, a community perceived to have large families, and say it would have the biggest impact on the poorest section, where education levels are low and access to family planning, poor.

Assam, the 15th most populated state out of 36 states and union territories in India with a population of 30.94 million, is the gateway to India's north-east region and borders Bangladesh and Bhutan. It is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won elections in April this year.

As a poll promise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP said it would curb the population growth of people it called "Bangladeshi settlers" or Muslims who migrated from that country. People in Assam are fearful that illegal immigration from Bangladesh is rising and changing the cultural profile of the state.

"The indigenous Assamese people are distrustful of immigrant population and feel that they are not safe. But not all Muslims are immigrants," said Assam-based political analyst Haider Hussain. "There is a feeling that since the Muslim population is going up, that is why they have done this."

The draft policy aims to curb the state's 17 per cent annual population growth by denying government jobs to anyone with more than two children. Those already in government jobs, which in India are sought after, will lose their jobs if they have a third child.

The draft also suggests anyone with more then two children would not be able to stand for elections for village and municipal bodies.

The government is at present seeking comments on the draft paper, which needs to be passed by the state assembly. The BJP has a majority in the assembly, so the policy has a good chance of becoming state policy.

  • 31m Population of Assam, which is the 15th most populated state out of 36 states and union territories in India.

    17% Annual population growth of Assam.

According to 2011 census figures, there were 10.68 million Muslims in Assam, which is around 34.2 per cent of the population - up from 30.9 per cent a decade ago. Nine out of the 32 districts have a Muslim majority population, according to the 2011 census figures.

The BJP has denied it is targeting a certain group and has said the proposal is simply aimed at curbing population. "The population policy is for everyone. There is no distinction (nor is it) aimed at one particular community of group," said BJP spokesman Siddhartha Bhattacharya. "Once the number of children are more, the father doesn't think of sending them to school. So they remain poor and uneducated and unskilled."

Assam will not be the first to introduce a two-child policy. Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat and Uttarakhand have policies that prevent people with more than two children from contesting local body elections.

Social activists say there is no evidence that the two-child norm really worked. "The tried and better method is, if you invest in family planning and increase education for women, fertility comes down. This has worked in Kerala (state)," said Ms Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, which has written to the Assam government to drop the two-child plans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'Assam mulls over rolling out two-child policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe