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Date/Time: May 20th, 2024 at 10:00 am

Location: Zoom

Meeting ID: 942 2890 2368

Title: No Country for Large Families: The Construction and Continuation of the Two-Child Norm in India”


India’s taking over of China as the most populous country on the planet this year has resurrected conversations about the need for a nationwide two-child policy. Over the past 75 years since Indian independence, a national two-child policy has been formally proposed in the Indian Parliament thirty-five times, although without success. However, as of 2023, nine Indian states have established a kind of two-child norm that prevent parents with more than two children from running for local government office, working in government positions, and/or receiving a range of welfare benefits. Prior research establishes that this small-family norm has led to female infanticide, declining sex ratio, desertion of wives, and political marginalization of the already marginalized in India’s son-preference society. But that literature doesn’t address where the norm came from or why it continues in policy discourse in India, given that the country has already reached replacement-level fertility and its population is projected to stabilize by the middle of the century, according to the latest UN Population projections. My research makes a deep dive into history to fill this gap and provide insights to make the current population policy more democratic, inclusive, and evidence-based.

This dissertation examines the construction of the idea of two-child norm by asking how policy elites, including the political, the bureaucratic, the expert and the leading advocacy communities, working in tandem with each other and global stakeholders gave shape to a coercive policy idea of two-child norm in a top-down exhortation to its people with scant regard to democratic procedures and scientific evidence.

The first paper traces the historical construction of the idea of small family norm as it became embedded in the official narrative of the Indian state during 1947-2000. The small-family norm which stood as a prescription for 2-3 child per family from 1950s to 1970s, developed into a clearer, top-down, one size fits all call for a two-child family and reached the apex of Indian political agenda by mid 1980s and became a sacrosanct idea, coexisting contradictorily with official policy for voluntary and target-free family planning services in the 1990s. In this process, official advocacy for small-family norm ignored findings from the government’s own scientific studies that indicated a preference among Indians for larger families and more sons at the time.

The second paper, examining the politics of expertise behind the small-family norm, argues how it emerged as a high modernist authoritarian state project supported by a politicized demography science and a complicit civil society. It shows that the centralized project of planning adopted by the post-colonial Indian state, which provided a top-down emphasis on timetables and targets, construed peoples’ fertility as a variable of a mathematical equation that could be manipulated to meet the developmental goals of the state. The policy priorities of the state politicized Indian demography by prioritizing official funding for family planning at the expense of holistic demographic research. Demographers, statisticians, and economists undertook work belonging to medical researchers, biostatisticians, and social psychologists, compromising the diversity of expertise behind Indian population policy. In this process, woman advocates, largely from urban, upper-caste, and privileged backgrounds with strong ties to the state, fully backed and even forwarded the state’s objective of normalizing a small family through coercive approaches.

The third paper examines different imaginations of “nation” underlying the current population control discourse by analyzing two recent right-wing advocacy campaigns in India for a nationwide two-child policy and how they stabilize, imagine and challenge particular ideas of Indian nation. It shows that the currently ascending Hindu nationalist ideas of saffron demography based on ousting Muslims and creating an ethnically pure “Hindu Nation” as a solution to addressing the “overpopulation” problem coexist and overlaps with secular developmental idea of nation that blames overpopulation for being a burden on patriotic and dutiful “taxpaying citizens”. Bringing together Benedict Anderson’s idea of nation as an “imagined community” and extant literature on nationalism in India, this chapter construes Indian nationhood as an “imagined Hindu economy” as reflected in the Indian population control discourse of today.

Overall, this dissertation challenges easy narratives of population control that rely upon monolithic understandings of institutions and individuals as “authoritarian” or “liberal” or ideas as “scientifically” or “politically” determined. Instead, through sustained deconstruction and historical attention to the complexities of meaning-making, No Country for Large Families illuminate the converges and contradictions that mark policy
making in the Indian context.

Committee Members:

Professor Matthew Nisbet, CAMD and CSSH, Affiliate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University (Chair)

Professor Christopher Bosso, School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University

Professor Mytheli Sreenivas, Departments of History and of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Ohio State University

Sushant Kumar