The draft of Assam’s new population policy proposes that minimum age for marriage must be made compulsory to get government facilities and couple with more than two kids will not be eligible to apply for state government jobs. The policy is viewed as an attempt to control family sizes of Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants.

Utpal Parashar
Hindustan Times, Guwahati

According to 2011 census, Assam has a population of more than 31 million and the state witnessed the highest increase in Muslim population from 30.9% in 2001 to 34.2% in a decade.(PTI File Photo)

People marrying before attaining the legal age for matrimony and couples having more than two children will not be eligible for Assam government jobs — strict sanctions that the state plans in its new population policy.

The country has a two-child norm, which is rarely followed strictly. Child marriage is banned in India and violation of the legal age — 21 for men, and 18 for women — attracts punishment whenever such incidents are caught.

“As part of legislative measures, the policy proposes that the minimum age for marriage must be made compulsory to receive government facilities such as jobs and services,” said state health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, unveiling details of the policy’s draft on Sunday.

The policy, which is part of the ruling BJP’s vision document for the state, is viewed as the party’s attempt to control family sizes of Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants.

Most of these people, suspected to have emigrated illegally from Bangladesh, have large families and are mainly settled in “chars” or shifting sandbars of the Brahmaputra.

Illegal immigration from Bangladesh is an emotive subject in Assam, which went through a long and bloody anti-foreigner public protest in the 1970s and 1980s. Embers from that fire flare up even today.

The 2011 census says Assam, which has a population of more than 31 million, witnessed the highest increase in Muslim population from 30.9% in 2001 to 34.2% in a decade. Hindus comprise 61.47% of the population but nine districts are Muslim majority.

The 2001 census put Assam’s population at 26,655,528 — of this, 17,296,455 were Hindus and 8,240,611 Muslims. A decade later, Hindus numbered 19,180,759 while the Muslim population rose to 10,679,345.

According to a 2012-2013 annual health survey, many districts in Assam have recorded high incidents of child marriage, with Dhubri bordering Bangladesh recording more than 15%.

A growing number of scholars believe underage weddings are common in poor households, who cannot or aren’t aware of family planning and this trigger multiple pregnancies. They say strict controls are needed to prevent population growth spiraling out of control.

The Assam government’s draft policy seeks to increase the punishment for child marriages from imprisonment for two years to four years in jail.

Public feedback will be sought before the draft is adopted as a resolution in the state assembly and made into laws.

People will be asked if parents of more than two children or anybody marrying before the legal age should be barred from becoming members of urban and rural civic agencies.

The policy says there will be incentives for those who stick to the two-child norm, and discouragements such as no maternal leave for women having a third kid.

“Many laws, those in the concurrent list, will need the President’s approval. It is a huge task as we will need to bring about seven new laws and amend service rules of all departments,” Sarma said.

He called the policy revision necessary for social reforms, and clarified that the courts would decide if the proposed sanctions infringed human rights.

The minister said courts have to decide if it was humane for parents to have more than two children when they can’t provide their basic needs.

“We are not in a rush. We will go through the entire process and want it to be in place before the term of our government expires in 2021,” Sarma said.

He dismissed allegations that the draft may have been released before the state’s pachayat polls with the motive to gain political mileage.

Assam will become the second state in the country after Rajasthan to have rules separate from the national population policy of 2000.