Governments imposing population controls have a tendency to wind up like the sorcerer’s apprentice. Take the western Indian state of Maharashtra, one of the country’s most populous, where a two-child policy has led to such widespread gender selection through abortion that the local government is scrambling to boost the dwindling female population. In Maharashtra, there are only 88 girls for every 100 boys, compared to the world’s natural sex ratio of 98 per 100. State officials now want to encourage procreation—but only if it helps beef up the number of girls born. According to a recent proposal that could turn into law, couples will be encouraged to have up to three children, as long as the third one belongs to the gentler sex. These girls, the government promises, will be eligible for free public education and a number of unspecified financial perks.
It all amounts to a mixed message. Legislators are also fast-tracking a motion to outlaw prenatal sex selection. But human rights groups have warned that the promise of rewards for a third-born girl provides a strong incentive for couples to break the government’s own ban on selective abortions. Meanwhile, Maharashtra’s legislative twists haven’t dissuaded the southern state of Kerala from considering its own two-child policy, which would punish parents who have more than two children with up to three months in jail, and bar religious leaders from promoting large families.