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Fertility Is Power: Mother Of All Paradoxes

The North's burgeoning population may earn it extra Lok Sabha seats and political clout

Fertility Is Power: Mother Of All Paradoxes

IF political power is a matter of how fecund you are, then Indians south of the Vindhyas have cause for worry. While they have managed to rein in their reproductive rates in the last three decades, their cousins up north, despite crores of rupees spent in family planning programmes, have miserably failed to keep their families small. The result: a demographic North-South divide that may, paradoxically enough, tilt the scales of political power in favour of the North.

Political representation in the Lok Sabha is due for revision after the 25-year-old freeze on Parliamentary seats lapses next year. If the revision is based on the 2001 census, the four southern states would-according to calculations based on future population projections-have to give up a few of their seats in favour of the North. In this scenario, UP would gain about 8 seats, Rajasthan 4, Madhya Pradesh 3 and Haryana 1, while Tamil Nadu would lose 6 seats, Kerala 4, and Andhra Pradesh 1.

By the year 2016, UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar would gain by 14, 5, 4 and 2 seats respectively, while Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, would lose by 8, 4, 3 and 1 seats. 'This is serious and doesn't bode well for our political stability, warns K. Srinivasan, director of the Population Foundation of India (pfi).

Of the 329 million more Indians expected to join the world's second most populated nation by 2016, 54 per cent would issue from just four states-UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Only 14 per cent would come from the South. 'In particular, says demographer Ashish Bose, 'Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which had 9.7 per cent share of India's 1996 population, would be responsible for only 5.7 per cent of the extra burden. It is important that we start talking now in terms of diversity of demography and not just absolute numbers.

Strangely, if the South were to lose seats on the basis of the 2001 census, it would be a direct result of their success in bringing down their growth rates. For instance, during 1981-91, Kerala and Tamil Nadu had growth rates of 13.98 per cent and 14.4 per cent respectively, way below the national average of 23.58. In contrast, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP (known as the bimaru states) had very high growth rates of 23.54, 26.84, 28.44 and 25.48 respectively.

The trend hasn't changed in the last seven years. According to the latest official estimates (October 1998), UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar had annual growth rates of 2.3, 2.3, 2.1, and 2.2 per cent respectively, all above the national average of 1.8 per cent. On the other hand, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka had growth rates of 1.2, 1.1, 1.4 and 1.5 per cent respectively. 'Not only do they produce smaller families, but they are also more literate, healthier, more prosperous, and stable societies, says Bose.

The widening rift between North and South could have significant political, social and economic fallouts. Explains George Mathew, director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences: 'Because they are more progressive and stable states, they are attracting more investments and hence offering more job opportunities. And the lure of a better life (better wages and better living conditions) should attract impoverished migrants from the North. For example, Kerala today offers the best daily wages to an unskilled worker. This North-to-South migration, predicts Mathew, will lead to social tensions.

A skewed distribution of Central financial allocations to the states could also result from the expanding growth differential, fears Bose.'While the Central Plan funds will not be affected, distribution of revenue funds such as excise may run into problems. The southern states may just refuse to underwrite the profligacy of the northern states, says Srinivasan. However, he feels this would be offset by the increasing private investments in the southern states.

'The bimaru states may even squander this supposed benefit through gross inefficiency, he adds. 'Take the public distribution system (pds) for instance. UP has three times the pds allocation that Tamil Nadu has, but its offtake is almost zero while Tamil Nadu picks up more than 80 per cent. So it's the political equilibrium I'm more worried about.

This isn't the first time that the South has expressed fears of political marginalisation because of the North's reproductive profligacy. In 1976, the southern states had expressed similar anxieties. This resulted in the 42nd Amendment which froze political representation from each state at the 1971 census. The moratorium was tied to the hope that northern states would catch up with the southern states by 2000 AD. However, while the freeze encouraged Tamil Nadu and Kerala to further reduce their growth rates, the population control programmes of the northern states were less successful.

Consequently, with less than a year to go before the freeze is to thaw, the ghost of 1976 is rising yet again. More ominously this time. The Tamil Nadu assembly passed a resolution last week urging the Government of India to 'ensure that the number of seats in the Lok Sabha allotted to every state remains unchanged and to amend the Constitution accordingly . The unspoken corollary: what is the point of curbing our family size if it is going to deprive us of political power? A situation that, as Srinivasan points out, would have serious implications on India's crucial family planning programme.

The Central government is faced with two options, both of which lead to ridiculous conclusions: changing the Lok Sabha representation post-2001, or continuing the freeze. The former will lead to a steady erosion of the political representation and power of the South until the growth rates of the North finally catch up with those of the South. This may in turn also lead to a North-South confrontation.

On the other hand, continuing the freeze will result in the democratic absurdity of an ever-increasing and increasingly disproportionate constituency size.

The 1976 freeze has already produced some anomalies. In the last delimitation exercise in 1975, out of the total strength of 545 Lok Sabha seats, 36 had been allocated to smaller states with a population of 60 lakhs or less-such as Meghalaya, Mizoram and Goa. The remaining 507 seats were distributed among the 15 major states, with each seat averaging 10.44 lakh voters, according to the 1971 census. As the constituency distribution has remained constant after the freeze, while the population continued to rise, the result is widely differing constituency sizes.

Delhi illustrates this disparity most tellingly. At present the capital's total electorate is 80.58 lakh as compared to 60.73 lakh in 1991. Says Sivaramakrishnan: 'In the 1996 elections, 13.81 lakh votes were polled in outer Delhi to elect one member of Parliament while Chandni Chowk needed only 2.07 lakh. In other words, the value of one vote in Outer Delhi is about one seventh of a vote in Chandni Chowk!

This constitutional oddity is clearly visible in Maharashtra too. Here, for instance, the electorate size of 10 out of the 48 constituencies is higher than the state average of 11.51 lakh-Thane (28.8 lakh), Mumbai North (21.76), Mumbai North-East (19.49), to name only three. Similar examples abound elsewhere in the country, such as Secunderabad (16.60), Surat (18.49), Gandhinagar (17.52) and Bikaner (15.36).

The disparity among different constituencies becomes more apparent in the case of constituent assemblies. In Maharashtra for example, out of the 288 assembly constituencies, 82 have electorates that are well above the state average of 1.89 lakh.

The freeze has led to over-representation of the small, and the under-representation of the large constituencies, especially in urban areas. Explains K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, professor at the Centre for Policy Research: 'Some differences in the electorate size between urban and rural constituencies is understandable and is universal because of the higher density of urban areas. However, the difference should not be of such an order as to render the overriding principle of equality of suffrage meaningless.

'So long as a fresh delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies is not done, the mismatch between constituencies will continue, Sivaramakrishnan warns.
There have been at least two attempts, once in 1991 and then in 1996, to get rid of the 1976 constitutional bar. Both, however, ended in the status quo being retained. The 1996 Constitution 80th Amendment Bill, based on the recommendations of the Committee on Electoral Reforms, sought to delimit the constituencies without expanding the size of the Lok Sabha nor changing the representations of the States. This would have meant different electorate sizes in different states, which is unconstitutional. For, the Constitution states that the number of seats in the Lok Sabha for each state 'shall be determined in such a manner that the ratio between the number and the population of the state is, so far as is practicable, the same for all the states . Some political parties have, however, suggested that in keeping with the increase in population, the size of the Lok Sabha could be increased-taking 10 lakh voters per member of Parliament, this would mean a total of 1,206 Lok Sabha seats for the 15 states. The debate continues.

K.B. Sahay, a professor in iit Delhi and a dabbler in population issues, has a different take on the controversy. He dismisses the demand to extend the 1976 freeze as fallacious, and argues that the only way to compare the four southern states and the bimaru states demographically for any purpose is to compare their population densities and not their populations per se.

In 1951, for instance, the population densities of southern and bimaru states were 148 and 115 persons per sq km respectively. So the distribution of Lok Sabha seats in the 1957 elections at an average rate of about seven lakh persons per member of Parliament, he feels, favoured the southern states because of their higher population density. Even in 1971 the population densities of southern states were greater (213 vs 169 persons per sq km) and was thus still in their favour. 'So the southern states have enjoyed this advantage for over four decades now, states Sahay.

Interestingly, by 2001 the densities of the two camps in question will be much closer to each other at 352 and 329 persons/sq km than in 1971. And the national average is projected to be 308 persons/sq km. Thus, feels Sahay, 'it would be an opportune moment to redistribute the Lok Sabha seats after the next census in 2001.

But the case for a fresh delimitation exercise will not go down well with the southern states. Or with population experts, who observe that if delimitation does rob the southern states of their political clout, the political will of these states to check their growth rates may weaken. It may even deter the bimaru states from accelerating their lax family planning programmes.

This double whammy could trigger a domino reaction, derailing practically all areas of development, including food sufficiency, education, housing and health care. It is crucial, therefore, that Parliament debates this issue to come up with a politically viable solution. And soon, for 2000 is not far off.

Disproportionate increase in electorate size
State 1971-2016 (No. of voters per MP) Population
by 2016
The likely break-up
if no. of Lok Sabha seats are increased
Andhra Pradesh 10.36* 21.2* 890.4* 89
Bihar 10.43 24.64 1330.82 133
Kerala 10.67 18.49 369.72 37
Madhya Pradesh 10.41 26.44 1057.56 106
Maharashtra 10. 50 22.54 1081.99 108
Tamil Nadu 10.56 17.96 700.37 70
Uttar Pradesh 10.39 28.79 966.19 97

* Figures in lakhs


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