Indian state proposes a two-child limit for government employees
January 11, 2017 (POP) -- A state in northeast India, is currently considering a bill which would impose a two-child limit on all government employees.
“If a person wants to do a job with the Assam government, that person should not have more than two children,” said the Assam Minister of Education, Health, and Finance Himanta Biswa Sarma in a press conference according to the Northeast Today , a media outlet based in northeast India. “When the policy comes into effect, those who are in government jobs and already have two children should not go for a third child. If an employee will have more than two children while on job, that particular employee will lose his or her job,” Sarma said.
The policy would disqualify any candidate with more than two children from running for a local, municipal, or district office. Government employees and local elected representatives who have a third child while in office would be forced to resign. The policy proposal raises the prospect that many women will be coerced into resorting to abortion in order to save their jobs if they are over their two-child limit.
The initiative has been spearheaded by Mr. Sarma, a high-ranking politician in the Assam state government. The proposed measure is set to be introduced to the Assam Legislative Assembly during the upcoming budget session which runs from February to March of this year. The initiative has received support from members of the Bharatiya Janata Party which enjoys a comfortable majority in Assam’s unicameral legislature. It appears that the measure is likely to pass.
Lawmakers have also planned on passing a measure which will require all textbooks from the fifth grade and on to include chapters on population control.
If adopted, Assam would become the eighth state in India to adopt a two-child limit for government employees. Local elected representatives are already barred from having a third child in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand.
It is unlikely that Assam’s two-child policy would be overturned by the courts in the event of a legal challenge. India’s Supreme Court has upheld two-child limits in other states as constitutional.
Few in Assam see any issues with the new policy. Observers have generally discounted the possibility that the law would coerce couples to resort to abortion or sterilization.
“The state government neither intends to compel anyone to adhere to the two-children norm nor would it use coercion as a means to implement the Policy,” Wasbir Hussain wrote in an article published in the Sentinel, a major media outlet in northeast India, “In principle, there should be no problem with this Policy.”
But for many elected representatives, two-child policies have forced them to make a difficult choice between having another child or keeping their job.
A study conducted by Nirmala Buch interviewed a number of elected representatives across India who had been forced to resign under two-child statutes. Ram Prakash, a sarpanch (village leader) in Madhya Pradesh, was forced out of office after the birth of his last child. “The sarpanch’s post is not going to support me during my old age, but my son will,” Prakash had said.
Two-child limits generally allow two children per marriage, a loophole that has been exploited by polygamous male elected representatives. In many places where a two-child policy is in effect, male elected representatives have abandoned or divorced their spouses in order to be in compliance with the policy. Others have taken a second wife so as to be able to have more children and still retain their government posts.
Because men in India often decide alone the number of children couples will have, some female elected representatives have been forced from their posts due to their husband’s desire for a third child. Other women have been forced to hide their pregnancies, registering their children under the names of their relatives or refusing to register them altogether. 
Many women have also resorted to abortion to save their government posts.
Buch’s investigation encountered a woman by the name of Maheshwari who became pregnant while running for a local post in Andhra Pradesh. To prevent herself from being disqualified from the election she aborted her child five months into the pregnancy. Maheshwari lost the election. Soon thereafter, her two-year-old son died after drinking kerosene. 
The two-child policy has led some elected representatives to abandon their children. Ram Kunwar, a sarpanch from Rajasthan, became pregnant with a fourth child:
Being aware of the two-child norm in panchayats, she had taken admission for delivery in the hospital in another city in her sister-in-law’s name. She…left the female infant behind in town to avoid detection where it died at the age of six months allegedly of ‘rickets.’ 
Due to a strong cultural preference for sons in India, elected representatives are more likely to sacrifice their government posts only if their third child is a boy rather than a girl. Son preference in states where two-child policies are enforced have led many women to resort to sex-selective abortion, disproportionately aborting children if they are female.
While sex-selective abortion remains a problem across much of India, two-child policies appear to significantly exacerbate the practice among wealthy citizens in states where these policies are in effect.
According to a paper by S. Anukriti, Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston College, and Abhishek Chakravarty at the University of Essex, when a two-child policy is implemented, women from upper castes are about 0.7 percent more likely to give birth to a boy than a girl if their first child was a girl. After two-child policies are put into place, however, upper-caste women are more than 3 percent more likely to have a boy if their first child was a girl, indicating that women may be resorting to sex-selective abortion to secure for themselves a son before their birth quota is filled.
One of the women interviewed in the Buch study leaves little doubt that two-child policies cause sex-selective abortion. Menka, a twenty-six year old village-level panchayat in Odisha, decided to keep her fourth child after she had been told that she was having a boy. But when the child was born, it became apparent that the doctors had determined the child’s sex incorrectly. ‘If I had known [that the child was a girl], I would have aborted. Now I have lost my [government] position and there is no son,” Menka said.
A two-child policy would undoubtedly exacerbate the practice of sex-selective abortion in Assam. Sex-selective abortion is already a major problem in the state. According to preliminary results from the India National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), Assam overall has an estimated sex ratio at birth of 107.6, a rate which could be normal but is somewhat high for a state similar to Assam’s level of socioeconomic development. Sex-selection becomes apparent, however, when the state is divided along urban and rural lines. In rural areas, the sex ratio at birth is 105.8. But in urban areas, 125.9 boys are born for every 100 girls, a ratio that is higher than many provinces in China were under the one-child policy.
While perceived as strong, the proposed two-child policy has met little resistance from lawmakers or the media. Supporters of the measure believe that the policy will set an example for Assam residents, encouraging them to reduce their fertility intentions.
However, women’s decision to limit fertility under the policy may have a more pragmatic, rather than an aspirational, motivation. After two-child policies are ratified (but before they go into effect), the number of women having their third child noticeably increases as couples rush to have their third before the penalties are in place.  After the policy goes into effect, however, the likelihood of women having a third child immediately decreases.
If the role-model theory for fertility reduction were predominant in two-child policies, the fertility decline should be gradual. But as fertility at third parity immediately declines once the policy goes into effect, many women may simply be trying to keep their birth quotas open in the event that they should choose to run for office.
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Two-child policies in India have fallen disproportionately hard on the poor. In 1992, the Indian Government formally instituted the Panchayati Raj, the modern panchayat system—a democratic system that provides governance on a local level. Panchayat posts are available at the village, municipal, and district levels and offer a means of economic opportunity for many. A two-child policy would affect a large number of Assam’s residents. The Government of Assam employs over 20,000 men and women in panchayats across the state.
In most states where a two-child policy is in effect, elected representatives and government officials are not removed from their posts unless someone brings a complaint against them. As a result, voters from opposing parties often use the law as political sabotage against their opponents. This mechanism falls particularly hard on elected representatives from marginalized castes. Wealthy elected representatives have the financial resources to appeal their cases in court while the poor, having little money for the costs associated with going to court, are forced to deal with the consequences of the accusations brought against them.
Elected representatives from lower castes are also more likely to have more children than their upper-caste counterparts. Lower caste families must have more children because their children are more likely to die from disease or poor health before reaching adulthood. For much of India’s poor, children are the only means to financial security in old age.
Instituting a two-child policy in Assam also carries the risk of discriminating against minorities and immigrants. The policy is generally perceived by many Assam natives as necessary to curb population growth in the state, specifically among Muslim immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who have more children on average than ethnic-Assamese and whose numbers have swelled in recent years.
But recent demographic trends tell a different story. Assam’s total fertility rate has plummeted overall. While women were having an average of 3.5 children over their reproductive lifetimes in 1993, that number has dropped to 2.2 today, a number which sits slightly below India’s replacement fertility rate (2.25 according to UNDESA).
In urban areas, where ethnic Assamese constitute a larger percentage of the population, fertility has sunk even further, dipping as low as 1.5 children per woman this year, according to the National Family and Health Survey. At this rate, urban areas will see a noticeable decline in the number of births and, without an increase in immigration or rural-to-urban migration, will see significant population contraction. Given the demographic decline in Assam, it would stand to reason that the state would benefit from investing in programs to better incorporate migrants in the state, many of which are currently living on the margins of society. In fact, India as a whole could do without two-child policies—every state with a two-child policy is below replacement fertility.
A two-child policy in Assam will not bring about better economic outcomes for Assamese citizens and threatens to unnecessarily target and burden lower castes, the poor, and immigrants. It would also unnecessarily place undue burden on women and on people from lower socioeconomic strata that wish to run for panchayat posts. The policy threatens to encourage men to abandon their wives if they intend to have more than two children, and will undoubtedly increase the incidence of sex-selective abortion.
Assam’s poor don’t need population control programs. They need roads and bridges to get their agricultural goods to market, access to secure housing, and better educational opportunities to help lift them out of poverty. If the Assam Government is serious about promoting development, they should abandon the poorly contrived and reckless two-child policy.
 Buch N. Law of two-child norm in panchayats: implications, consequences and experiences.Economic and Political Weekly 2005; 40(24): 2421-2429.
 ] Anukriti S, Chakravarty A. Political aspirations in India: evidence from fertility limits on local leaders. IZA Discussion Paper No. 9023; 2015. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2604386 .
 Buch, 2005.
 Anukriti, 2015.
 Buch, 2005.
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Reprinted with permission from Population Research Institute.