I came to know about this through a fascinating discussion on the ever-insightful AamJanata blog. Many of the views for and against the proposed bill are included on that page, and are well worth reading through. Here, I would like to add two points to the discussion: 1) that the chief adviser to the aforementioned commission, N. R. Madhava Menon, has publicly denounced the penalties as “not appropriate”; 2) that I agree with him.
Let's take a real-life case study to illustrate why the proposed legislation wouldn't work. My friend Abhay is a resident of an outlying settlement near Varkala, which is in Thiruvananthapuram district. He works as a tourism operator on Varkala cliff. Abhay is married with two children. They live month to month if they are lucky, week to week most of the time, day to day when work is especially slow, such as during the monsoon season.
Abhay's life, and those of all who depend upon him, is financed by a series of ever-increasing loans from neighbourhood babus. Given his (arguably forced) short-term outlook regarding life and money, he will probably always be poor, limited by an inability to plan effectively for the future. Abhay took countless loans from my former partner and I until we realised he would never be able to pay us back.
Whenever we met to share a few beers, he would unload his troubles on me, and I'd listen patiently. At the end, no matter how intense his fear and frustration, he would always smile and say to me, “everything is the God – not me, the God. Maybe next month I am lucky, I am not lucky. Everything the God.”
I could spend hours illustrating Abhay's life, but for the present purposes, what's important is that he and his family are poor and he already has two children. Now, fast forward a couple of years into the future: the Kerala Women's Code Bill has been passed into law, and Abhay and his wife conceive a third child. What happens next?
Option one: Get an abortion.
Abortion remains highly controversial in Kerala just as in other parts of the world; many couples (and women left to face abortion alone) will keep it a secret rather than confront the social repercussions involved. More concrete than that, however, is the claim in an article by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual and reproductive health worldwide, that abortion in India has a rate of three unsafe procedures for every two safe ones. Being more advanced in medicine than most other states in India, Kerala probably has better figures than this, but I have been in enough public hospitals in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam to know that conditions are far from ideal.
The Guttmacher Institute article continues:
Most women cannot afford to pay private-sector prices, so they go to public health facilities where quality of care is poor. Physician training is often inadequate, sanitary medical conditions are lacking, and privacy and confidentiality are often compromised. Moreover, authorized abortion facilities in India routinely turn a woman away if she arrives alone, is unmarried or is married but childless.”
I expect this bill, if enacted, will lead to a spike in abortion rates in Kerala – both official and unofficial. I cannot see this being a good thing for Abhay, his wife or anyone else.
Option two: Have the child and face the law. This leads to one of two choices:
a) Take out yet another loan, with all the stress and danger that involves, to finance paying the Rs 10,000 fine.
b) Go to jail, leaving his wife, two growing daughters and newborn baby with no income. They are fortunate in that Abhay's wife's family live nearby and would take them in while he served his time, but that would place a huge strain on that family's limited resources. Abhay would also be missing out on three months of work – a financial double whammy. On top of that, Abhay's absence would place an emotional strain on the relationship between he and his wife.
So far, so depressing. But I'm afraid it gets no better.
Option three: Hide the child from the authorities.
Knowing Abhay, who fundamentally means well but is crippled by that short-term outlook, he might very well take this option and delay the repercussions of having a third child. Now, that child does not exist in the eyes of the state, and Abhay, in an effort to keep his family safe in the short term, has denied his child the basic rights of society.
Hang on just a moment. Perhaps these crucial legal details can be fudged into minor contingencies later on – say, by passing a few thousand rupees to a government employee to do the needful and register your child several months after birth. Lo, the Kerala Women's Code Bill opens up yet another avenue for that most offensive of Indian 'c' words: corruption.
Let's not forget the woman in this picture: Abhay's wife. The bill is, after all, named for her and designed with her interests in mind. How does she benefit from any of this? Is the proposed legislation suggesting that falling pregnant for a third time is somehow a form of assault on the male's part, and that she would be safe from such an assault if the imprisonment or fine penalties were in place? That is nonsense. If anything, the bill more firmly establishes a woman's subservience to her husband. It confirms her lack of power and accountability in a fundamental aspect of the human existence.
I have one more thing to add to this case study, a final twist. I have in fact hidden from you a vital piece of information: Abhay already has more than two children. In fact, he has two families: one with his wife, legal and open, and one with his longtime mistress, illegal and highly secret. In that relationship with his mistress, he has a further two children. How does the Kerala Women's Code Bill judge this situation? Can you see how deep the rabbit hole goes?
A reduction in population growth in India is necessary. Too many families are having children they cannot afford to provide properly for, and the state is hardly able to pick up the slack in every one of those millions of cases. But there are better options than draconian punishments, which lead to fear and law-dodging.
Mr Madhava Menon says, “Offering certain State privileges to those who follow the two-child norm and denying certain benefits to those who do not is a better option.” That seems so clearly a better option to me that the very idea of the harsh penalties mentioned above ought to be irrelevant. Psychologists such as Rand et al have documented that reward is a better reinforcer of good behaviour than punishment. It simply makes more sense, whichever way you look at it.
Another idea which could have a lasting impact? A concerted, government-funded education drive – in schools and workplaces, in rural communities and urban areas – encouraging the use of contraceptives and explaining why having only two children benefits everyone. It could make use of respected role models, such as movie stars and community leaders.
Education is not the easy option. It requires perseverance and a lot of patience. But it is a better long-term solution. Threatening the populace with jail or a large fine, meanwhile, is a quick and lazy fix (if it is any kind of fix). It's a short-term measure as depressingly ineffective as Abhay's day-to-day struggle to drag himself and his family out of the neverending hard times.
Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff