Mizoram has made news — not necessarily for the wrong reasons but certainly for quite unexpected reasons. North-Eastern India generally makes news due to insurgency-related incidents or other instances of violence and killings. This time a mother of 15 children and a widow has been honoured and rewarded with a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh by Mizoram’s Sports Minister Robert Romawia Royte.
The reason is that the native Mizo population is dwindling and hence women like her are being awarded and honoured. The unprecedented show had the backing of the influential Young Mizo Association (YMA) and a Presbyterian Church leader Rev P.M. Manikama. The state Sports Minister, Robert Romawia Royte, also loves to be called ‘Triple R’, in fact has distributed Rs 2.5 lakh to 17 women who delivered ‘more children’ at a function held within his Aizawl East-II constituency.
The dwindling population and ‘fertility’ issues are of general concern in the North-East. There are also other issues. The local Christian tribals do not believe in the government’s policy of small family or family planning. The Nagas generally use the refrain — a mother’s womb is not a graveyard. The population issue remains a vexed problem in the North-Eastern region, which has more than 200 linguistic and ethnic groups across the seven states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Assam, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.
Of these, three Christian-majority states are Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
Meghalaya, the hub of Khasis, Garos and Jaintia tribals practises matriarchy. Nagaland has so far not elected any woman legislator and Mizoram has elected only two in the past and more so as an exception. Royte belongs to the regional outfit Mizo National Front, the party led by state Chief Minister Zoramthanga. MNF was once led by a crafty rebel leader, the Late Laldenga. Royte said that the incentives to mothers were given in accordance with ‘more children drive’ launched by different church bodies and denominations and the Young Mizo Association (YMA). Such a gesture is not new to Mizoram. In 2018, a Baptist church in remote Lunglei district town had announced incentives to encourage couples to have more babies in an effort to check their dwindling numbers.
Of course, this disregards the national policy for control population. The church in remote Lunglei town had said it would pay families a one-time cash assistance of Rs 4,000 for a fourth child and an additional Rs 1,000 rupees for each new child. These are very sensitive matters. The issue of dwindling numbers in the region should be understood in a sociopolitical context. Ethnic minority groups fear being swamped by ‘outsiders’ from mainland India and other tribal groups. Nagas witnessed violent days in the mid-1990s in their confrontation and clashes with Kukis. The menace hit both Nagaland and parts of Manipur. In Mizoram, the native Lushais are not happy to entertain Brus especially when it comes to casting votes.
The Mizo youth leaders would readily tell one that the locals are “not against professionals coming and working in our state”. The fear and objections are of a regular influx. Here too certain complexities work. Mizoram has for months now accommodated and helped ‘refugees’ from Chin province of Myanmar who have taking shelter after facing persecution following the harsh military actions there since the February coup.
Yes, ‘sharing’ ethnic bond is a crucial factor in the entire debate. Moving out of the North-East, we know the population debate is of general concern. India currently is the world’s second most populous nation after China. There is a ‘national policy’ to check population growth even as it is not illegal to have more children.
According to the UN figures, in 2019, India had an estimated population of 1.37 billion and China 1.43 billion. Now experts say by 2027, it is possible that India will surpass China’s population. It is estimated that India could add nearly 273 million people to its population between 2021 and 2050.
We have one more major dichotomy in handling issues like population growth between “mainland India” and among the tribal majority states of the North-East. In July, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh law commission released the draft of a proposed Bill which made news, and certainly not without good reason. The first draft of the Uttar Pradesh population (Control, stabilization and Welfare) Bill, 2021 had proposed that the benefits of state government-sponsored welfare schemes will be limited to only those with two children or less. The State Law Commission in UP had also sought comments from the common people. In certain quarters, such moves are being linked to electoral politics and Hindu-Muslim divide.
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had himself said: “There is also a lack of awareness about population in certain communities and we therefore need community-centric awareness efforts”.
The answers to some queries triggered by these debates are not known to us as of now. Nor do I want to hazard a guess. If an answer has to be decided by a democratic process, it is difficult to conceive of a more satisfactory method or system than that is embodied in the existing structures. Family is a private business and the state should have no business. But is it so?
Society and policy makers hence come back to the same question posed on a number of occasions pertaining to different pressing problems. The question is – What is the right way for us to get forward?
(Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist. He is author of books ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’ )