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Two's Family, Three's A Crime

Two's Family, Three's A Crime

September 29, 2011

A third kid? Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass GO.

The Kerala Commission on the Rights and Welfare of Women and Children this week recommended to the Congress-led Kerala government that they punish families who have more than two children. More accurately, the recommendation called for direct punishment of the father: have a third kid, and he should be given a choice of three months in jail or a fine of Rs 10,000. It also contains a clause stating that such individuals will henceforth be 'legally disqualified persons', which presumably cuts them off from state aid and services. The proposed legislation has been called The Kerala Women's Code Bill 2011.

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 


  • Chandra Chooden Nair
    Chandra Chooden Nair
    08.12.11 11:25 PM
    Now a days everybody is behind the Mullapperiyar issue. So, wants to re-open the necessity of Women's Code Bill, 2011. Our legislators have no other way than to enact the Bill. Why we have to increase the unhealthy population in Kerala. There are 42 lakhs unemployed youths in Kerala. One third of our population is landless even after Land Reforms Act. It is the duty of the government to provide every children free and quality education, health facilities, nutritious food etc. free of cost. Now the oppositions are coming from fundamentalists. To attain and increase the political power by increase the population is their goal to achieve. It is the curse of our democracy.
    23.10.11 09:20 PM
    Dear BARNS can you ask your friend Abhay what is his secret when it comes to getting away with a wife and a girlfriend and new Bill all at the same time .

    I can't get away with any thing when it comes to my Mrs.

    The one thing that Abhay needs to learn is how to pull it out fast enough or alternatively pay bribe or Rs.10000 fine.

    PS. Don't lend him anymore money to pay his fine, instead buy him very strong pack of rubber bands.
  • Anil Aickara
    Anil Aickara
    06.10.11 06:29 PM
    But where is the bill? can you give me a copy of it?
  • Rohit
    05.10.11 04:53 PM
    While I do agree that we need to look at teh future and take actions Now, I think this has gone a step too far. Individuals who get married (and this is assuming they are mature and can think logically) should be able to decide on how many children can they bring up well and go ahead accordingly. Also in a country like India, do you think it will be hard for people to get away with anything ?? It is another reason to pay & take bribes.
  • Anne John
    Anne John
    01.10.11 01:43 AM

    You seem to feel pretty strongly that we live in a democracy and that we, the people have powers. I agree with you. And that is exactly why I don't understand how anyone can support such a law. This law seems like a cousin to the one in China. I agree that something has to be done to control this population explosion but such laws simply rob the very essence of a democratic nation.
  • Xavier Antony
    Xavier Antony
    30.09.11 12:24 AM
    I just want to highlight some points
    1. You say the foreigners dont know what is good for India
    Do you know Mrs. Sonia Gandhi an Italian by birth is deciding what is good for the entire indian's?
    There are alot of foriegners are well wishers of India and they are not like you
  • Sangeetha
    30.09.11 12:09 AM
    @Joseph.. Agree with you 100%. It's clear that you are a Mallu like me and we know what is good and bad for our state and country.
    @Mary.. I'm married to an Italian and often see how people who are non Indians don't understand a damn about what is good and not good for India. As I tell my Italian friends too.. Do we in India tell your government how to rule your country? No. So let Indians do what is best for our country.
    No country is perfect and I read in Italian news every day how many marriages end up in divorce and murders which are just on the raise. So in west we have a problem which is different from India. So please do not preach from what you read in gossip blogs and biased media.
    India is NOT Libya or Iraq that we need your advice. We live in a DEMOCRACY and people still have loads of power in this country.
  • Marydasan John
    Marydasan John
    29.09.11 11:57 PM
    I highly appreciate that Barnaby Haszard Morris though not a Keralite could visualise a scenario arising from the legislating of Kerala Women's Code Bill into a law.
    Though I do not agree with some of the 'presumed scenarios', the objection to the Bill is simple and crystal clear.
    You don't need a pick-axe to remove something that could be taken out safely by a needle.
    Compared to other States, the population growth in Kerala is much less - much less than even national average.
    Bringing a law that makes a few parents criminals because they have become parents of a third child is nothing but absurd. Having more than two children is not a norm in Kerala, but an exception. Why do we need a law at all to take care of such innocent exceptions.
    There are far more humongous issues which are to be tackled in Kerala like high suicide rate, withering away of families due to alcoholism, frauds committed by money-chains and so on.
    It is unthinkable that Justice Krishna Iyer who has earned the sobriquet of 'thinking judge' has come up with such proposals that axe the very fundamental rights of human beings. It makes me to believe that Justice Iyer's preachings and writings defending fundamental rights are nothing but hog-wash (I sincerely hope it is not so).
    The issue is very simple. Family planning should be left to the free will of individuals. The State can definitely push it through various modes of publicity. Punishments should be a taboo in such cases.

    Marydasan John
  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    29.09.11 11:56 PM
    From the 'poly-landering' Shuiab to the bigamous Abhay, you seem to have a real penchant for picking up friends! "Kallan Saipu" seems to be a better sobriquet for you than "Mandan Saipu" Hats off to you! Even from far off NZ, you can feel the Mallu pulse. The draconian measure suggested by the Kerala Commission for the Welfare and Rights of Women and Children is certainly the burning topic in the state, with Suresh Gopi hurling his portly frame right into the thick of the debate. Kerala certainly doesn't deserve such a draconian law as it is far ahead of the other Indian states in population control. In fact going by the latest population figures, Kerala could lose 4 MPs; UP on the other hand could gain 20. In a democracy, where numbers matter more than substance, Kerala is in danger of being marginalised because of its dwindling birth rate. What the Government should do is to reserve a few Lok Sabha seats for the Mallus in the Birmaru states.
    That said, I think the Commission has done the right thing by suggesting such a drastic measure. It has served the purpose of bringing the focus back to India's explosive population growth. The present Kerala Government certainly doesn't have the guts to even remotely consider its implementation. What he commission has done is to take a dig at institutions such as the Church which has been exhorting (rather vociferously in recent times) and even offering incentives to its flock 'to go forth and multiply.'
  • Sangeetha
    29.09.11 06:20 PM
    Lastly.. You are talking about the cost for abortion.. Well then is that cheaper than taking care of a new baby?
    Is it better to have another child and let that child die of hunger because you don't have money to "abort" or you don't want to take that risk???
    Come on.. let's be real and not hypocrites.
  • Sangeetha
    29.09.11 06:15 PM
    There are many other ways to avoid pregnancy. Condoms for one or get yourself operated immediately after the second child birth.
    I know plenty of poor families who have done this and it does not cost much and is far safer than getting an abortion.
    Mistress? Well that fellow should be given a kick on his butt for lamenting. You have no money, well then don't create babies.
    There is nothing wrong in this new law and hope it really works. Kerala has to be a first example to other states where "men" want to reproduce until they see a male child.
    India has to progress and people have to change their mindset and the only way to do that in india is with "severe" laws and fine.
    Am all for this.
  • Cameron
    29.09.11 07:18 AM
    Two other points that come to mind after reading your article:

    1. Indian families already, mostly, desire a boy baby over a girl baby. (Honestly, I know less about Kerala than some other states.) You often see a family trying and trying for kids until they hit jackpot and have their boy or two. If only two are allowed, those girls are more likely to be aborted.

    2. Talk related to sex, of any kind, tends to be pretty taboo. I thinking adding it to the schools' responsibilities and leaving it at that is expecting a lot. I think a better road would be, and on a national level, to start introducing content onto television.

    I am always against rules that can't be easily enforced and this is just that. Just one more opportunity for the upper people to cash in bribes from the poor.

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