The October 13 decision of the state cabinet to exclude families with more than four children from government benefits including government jobs, comes as a shock for many different reasons. On the face of it, this does seem to be a legitimate effort of the government to control population growth, therefore an acknowledgement that the state’s population expansion is close to what it considers the safe limit beyond which the state would become even more unsustainable than it is now. It is however also easy to suspect that the new policy is prompted by the stereotype so actively promoted by Hindutva activists that Muslims proliferate faster than the rest because of the allowance given to Muslim men to keep multiple wives. Data however have proven this prejudice largely false numerous times. This allowance is bad no doubt, and must end we agree, but our objection is from the angle of patriarchal gender oppression this custom represents. The interesting fact also is, despite this allowance, a majority belonging to the religion do not go outside the ties of monogamy, probably because many they have no inclination for it, and others because they cannot afford the obvious additional overheads involved in the upkeep of multi partner family. Still one more relevant fact is, despite their religion not giving them this allowance, a lot of men belonging to other religions do also practice polygamy in Manipur. If the entire truth were to be revealed, there would be many even amongst the 60 elected members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly who would end up red-faced on this matter, and if existing laws of matrimonial ties were to be enforced strictly, many would end up on the wrong side of the law. In the interest of strengthening the institution of family, laws on the matter should indeed be enforced without fear or favour, and should any marriage not work out, and either partner seeks to start a new life with another partner, a formal prior divorce with earlier partner should be made mandatory. But have no doubt, powerful vested interests would ensure any such suggestions are swept under the carpet.
But leave aside from these speculations and let us give the benefit of the doubt to the government and presume that the order is purely a population control administrative overture. Even if this were to be so, there are still too many grey and ambiguous areas. First, does the order mean only those who are in government service or those who wish to be in government service would not be allowed to have more than four children. What about those in business and other non-government enterprises. Would there be no consequences if they go on having more than four children. Given the fact that the government employs only a small fraction of the state’s employable population, if this is the case, the order has quite obviously exposed its flaws which would dampen its effectiveness from the start. Given also the fact that polygamy is a reality, especially amongst the rich and powerful, how would the ceiling of four children be calculated. For a man who keeps two or more wives, would it mean all of them together can have only four children. Take also another situation, suppose a family is disqualified from government jobs because they have five children, would the family suddenly become eligible for government jobs and largess again if one of their children dies. Conversely, if a family has only four children and some of them are already in government jobs, would those already employed lose their jobs should the parents be blessed with another child? On a more serious note, can children be made to pay the penalties for offences of their parents? Are children of criminals to be automatically treated as criminals as well? Would this new law apply only to state government jobs and not central government jobs? For any law or ordinance to be successfully implemented, these intricacies would have to be spelled out clearly. The government should have consulted some legal luminaries to work out these details first before going public, so that the final law can stand the scrutiny of the judiciary if and when challenged.
The other question is, how much data studies were done before this momentous decision was taken. Are there enough data available to make definite conclusions on the population growth pattern as well as causes in the state? Is the fertility rate of people in Manipur exceeding the limits considered standard and safe? How much is this growth a result of inward migration of population and how much out of domicile fertility rises? The fertility trend generally known to all from practical experience and observation especially amongst working parents in urban areas is on the decline. People in different professions in this income strata normally have one or two children, either by the compulsions of their heavy work schedules and responsibilities or else in consideration of affording their children the best upbringing within their resources. We do remember even the chief minister N. Biren taking note of this declining fertility amongst the urban middle class with alarm and in one of his public speeches, exhorting young couple to have more children to ensure there are no overturns in demography working against indigenous populations. What caused this sudden change of heart and mind, we wonder. Without the necessary data already in hand, laws created would be at best impulsive, and likely to defeat their very purposes from the start. One is also reminded of the topsy turvy reality of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” where the Queen of Hearts, unpredictable, whimsical, and nonsensical as she is, every now and then points at someone nearby to declare “off with his head”.
The other point to ponder is the general attitude to government jobs amongst the public as well as those in power. The elementary definition of a job is that they become available when an employer needs certain services and these services can be provided by people with the relevant skills. In other words, jobs follow the market logic of balancing the pulls and pushes of supply and demand. Creating jobs hence is about first generating these demands by fostering growth in industry and service sectors. In interest of their businesses, enterprise owners would also seek to employ those with the best relevant skills and at salaries within their means to pay without loss, maximising profit. The last point deserves a caution. When left to the market, profit interests would ensure workers’ wages are kept at minimum, often at exploitative levels, and this is where the government should be stepping to define reasonable minimum wages in private enterprises every now and then. Government jobs are no different, and as an employer, the government should also be thinking of employing the best candidates for its own interest. Contrary to this, the government outlook to government jobs is that these are rewards it can dole out to those it thinks fit or favours. This is also why it saw nothing wrong in thinking of coming out with an order that would disqualify or qualify job seekers by criteria other than merit.
If population control is thought necessary as the way towards a larger common good, the government is absolutely justified in devising means to achieve this end. However, it must also remember that in liberal law, the end cannot always justify any means used, and these means must also be moderated by the basic principles of justice and law itself. Yes, make laws to overcome any hurdle, but do it imaginatively and without violating peremptory norms and human rights.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author