Suddenly, and this is an optimist view, we find the country in the midst of exciting reverberations. There are winds of change and, perhaps, for the first time, inherent defects in India’s DNA are being addressed. Babus are being asked to deliver, Ministers are being encouraged to perform, MPs have been advised to focus more on work and less on optics, and MLAs have been shown the best of practices to follow. Problems such as cleanliness and the need for toilets, which in the past seemed too trivial even to be discussed in the public sphere, are being taken up in the earnest. Extraordinarily action-oriented and vocal Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the centre of this all – and he has been taking the country through what may appear the cusp of an extraordinary change.
All of this has had a spiraling effect. It has stirred our policy-makers into action, spurred a rare competition among the Ministers – be it at the centre or across States – to come up with innovative policies, while at the same time, micro managing execution of prevailing programmes. Twitter timelines of our Ministers are a tell-tale of this gripping change and this augurs good for the country.
Last week, a rather unique announcement came to light in the form of Population and Women Empowerment policy of Assam. This is, perhaps, first such initiative taken by any State in the country. What set this legislation apart is its recognition that women empowerment is intrinsic to a
population policy. What also makes it different is the policy’s approach – or as Assam’s Health Minister and architect of this policy Himanta Biswa Sarma termed, “A shift from medical-led policy to holistic social reform.”
But the enormity of the problem posed by a spiraling population, especially in Assam, which registered a decadal growth of over 17 per cent in last Census, requires much more than a traditional policy intervention. It requires a holistic, multi-layered intervention with a blend of incentives and inhibitors. Stringent provisions, which are truly transformational and signal the Government’s intent on steering social reform with conviction, stand out as well and establishes the novelty of this policy.
Confined so far to the realm of advisory, the policy brings the two-child norm to the fore. Sarma said that the policy “mandates Government servants to follow a two-child norm and serve as role models for the society,” adding that people with more than two children will not be eligible for Government employment.
Sarma further informed that “Government may legislate legal provisions to bar people with more than two children to take part in Panchayat and Municipal Body elections. The Government may also consider to legislate similar legal provision for election/nomination to other statutory bodies and committees.” This goes even further, and that’s what is remarkable.
The policy also states that the State Government will take it up with the Government of India that MLAs adhere to family planning norms and those flouting the same be disqualified or barred from contesting elections, informed Sarma. These are peppered with a slew of other very progressive measures that the policy captures and signals loud intent of a Minister who is known for his passion for reforms and people’s welfare.
Such a mixed approach of policy enablers and inhibitors is necessitated given the grim social indicators that Assam grapples with – average family size of 5.5 which is higher than national average; worst maternal mortality rate ratio (30) in the country; a high infant mortality rate of 54; highest under-five mortality rate; high unemployment rate of 61 against national average of 50. This, coupled with the fact that Assam has very diverse demographics and topographic, and there are many regions which have hostile and inhospitable terrains posing challenge on equitable access of medical care.
“Next decade is defining for us and we wish to catapult Assam into a progressive and front-ranking State. To achieve this we need to overcome constraints on our resources and create systems which enhances the quality of lives of people,” adds Sarma, who also handles the education portfolio.
The Minister further informed, “The Government, therefore, proposes a policy that incentivises families to optimise family size and allows them the freedom to aspire for higher standard of living. Its goal is that every family in Assam should have access to quality education, healthcare and employment opportunities. We also need to acknowledge that our State’s envelope of resources is limited and finite and, therefore, our objective of a better future for us and our future generations can only be achieved if we achieve a stable population.”
Viewed with similar progressive measures like Gunotsav (a system of evaluation of facilities in Government schools and education achievement levels of students by officers, MLAs and Ministers) and Pranam Act (mandates Government employees to support their elderly and divyang siblings), the policy is yet another feather in the cap of Sarma.
(The writer is a strategic communications professional)
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