Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sen and I - 1

Mr Sen,
In your book India:Development and Participation, while expostulating coercive measures undertaken by the government in its drive for population control, you have criticized many post emergency measures/administrative pressure tactics that have developed and in some cases, received official approval, in order to achieve their family planning targets. The examples you cited of "making verbal threats, ...sterilization a condition for eligibility for anti poverty programs, depriving mothers of more than two children maternity benefits, reserving certain health care services for those who have been sterilized and forbidding persons who have more than 2 children from contesting panchayat elections." You go on to specifically denounce the last policy as being in violation of democratic norms and personal liberty and express fear that the relevant legislation(in force in 5 states at the time of writing) might be extended at the national level. In my own small contribution to the public deliberations, discussions and debate your writings so consciously cultivate, I hope that any factual errors or value misjudgments will be pointed out by others better informed.
I do not begrudge you the points that you have raised. I think a very plausible case can be made against such pseudo-coercive measures for family planning( Refined coercion ,of course , being benchmarked by Mrs Indira Gandhi's infamous sterilization drive) on the grounds of being undemocratic and a state entering into what is ,quite obviously a personal space.Indeed, as you point out later, the Kerala phenomenon has done better than China in this regard through non coercive measures by a heady mix of expanding female literacy and larger female participation in the work force. My 'criticism', more appropriately, my doubts are with regard to how this might translate into actual public policy action.
Forbidding persons with more than two children from contesting panchayat elections:
This is certainly undemocratic, for it excludes a large share of population from "representative" democracy due to their failing an apolitical and irrelevant criteria. Having 3 kids is not equivalent to a criminal conviction and a sentence for 3 years, for e.g. My point of contention is this: Political leaders at all levels,despite their powers of mass  mobilization , seem to be accreting votes by conformism and support to social norms, primitive archaic or morally reprehensible though they might be. One would wish to see a closer amalgamation of democratic institutions working through political figures to cause social change rather than be moulded and enslaved by it. I admit that this should "emerge" out of reasoned public debates and a consensus among the participants(in this case, the citizens) but in light of the contraints placed by limited education, blind adherence to traditionalistic values(even only 50 year old 'values' are sometimes seen as rigid lakshman rekhas) and lack of sufficient fora , I cannot but feel that the lead must come from those who have a larger multiplier effect than civil society deliberations- viz central/state level legislation. Perhaps my impatience for results shines through but until conditions of education, literacy and health services improve, when 2 child norms are followed out of empowered female agency, one must try to continuously tweak incentive structures through available, direct measures rather than wait for a revolutionary upheaval.
Whom does it hurt? It disallows a large population to contest and win panchayat elections , true, but becoming a public servant should be seen to involve more than just a position completely disentangled from the personal values upheld by the public servant as a representative of the State. And with the power, should come certain preset qualities that such a public servant upholds through his personal/social being. Moreover, with a functioning participatory democracy, a man's ability and access to 'voice' is not substantially hindered by contesting elections to panchayats. Perhaps, while democratic norms should be seen as something close to being inviolable, in certain contexts such as these, a slight flexibility of principles could somehow be justified.
Other concerns and replies-
Can this be extended to the other measures mentioned above?
Certainly not! The basic services (health, education) cannot be restricted on such an artificial criteria nor can it be compared with the electoral tweaks. While not denying the role democracy plays in the full enjoyment of life and its infinite potential , state supported health and education services  are more 'absolute necessities in the sense that they are critical for a right to physical existence as well as right to opportunity for social and economic mobility.
Can this be extended to include other eligibility criteria- educated representatives, no alcohol consumption perhaps?
No, care must be taken that the ineligibility does not stem from economic or environmental constraints(poor education) or criteria which are difficult to ascertain/subjective. Also, feature creep should be guarded against and such 'social' tweaks must be measured rarely and with great restraint.

Being a strong believer in "moderation in everything including moderation", in my judgment, this measure is a moderate enough yet with enough multiplier potential to make a salutary impact on how family planning is perceived, by impacting a negative push factor. Nothing in the above discussion denies the importance of continuing with other much larger initiatives that further women's agency and spread of family planning measures- technological, social and medical.

1 comment:

  1. after reading the post I must say the title give hope to followers of the blog that we will get a good look in Sen's book in coming days without actually reading it and that too with a series of analysis attached :p
    Just to be a part of the discussion I want to ask more clarity on your last point that "care must be taken that the ineligibility does not stem from economic or environmental constraints(poor education) " . Isn't having more than 2 kids also stems from economic and societal constraints. eg; the desire to have a boy for economic reasons in poor families is one of the major reason for more children.Also in many cases the societal or family pressure does not allow a woman to limit it to 2 kids. In some societies family planning in itself is considered against beliefs or religion. The failure in family planning is directly related to lack of education and poverty. Plz explain how did u decide where to draw the line.