Four years ago, the villagers of Pinkapar gathered under a tree and urged a shy, veiled, lower-caste woman, Vijaykumari Markande, to run for a seat on the village council. She declined, saying she lacked the confidence required to be a politician.
But the villagers persisted because they had to elect a lower-caste woman that year under a law mandating that one-third of all local council members be women and members of lower castes. They finally persuaded Markande to run. She entered the race and won, becoming a sarpanch, the head of the village council.
But Markande had to deal with a different issue at home. She said her mother-in-law was nagging her constantly to have a third child in the quest for a male heir. "I already had two daughters," Markande said. "But she said a son carries the family name forward. The neighbors taunted me, too."
When Markande gave birth to her third daughter, the government in the state of Chattisgarh dismissed her from the council for violating a regulation imposed in 2001 that said all elected, local council members could have no more than two children.
Markande, 27, said she had blossomed as the village sarpanch. "I became bold and no longer wore the veil," she recalled. "I began to enjoy the power." She presided over meetings and championed local projects, helping build a school, installing a water tank and running health facilities.
"I was a good sarpanch for my village, but I lost my job because I was an obedient daughter-in-law at home," Markande said, as she helped her mother-in-law carry cow dung from a cattle shed.
Eight Indian states have enacted two-child laws for local council members. Those states also provide incentives in government jobs and subsidies to those who have no more than two children.
The state regulations have angered international population experts and members of women's groups, who say the rules are coercive and violate the spirit of the 1994 U.N. International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo. At the meeting, India agreed to de-emphasize programs that focused on demographic targets and instead encourage women's education and reproductive health care measures.
"Such coercive policies are unacceptable in a democracy," said Saroj Pachauri, the head of Population Council in New Delhi. "All the progress India made since Cairo will be wasted if the states continue on the path of coercion and disincentives." She said research indicated that most couples want to have two to three children, but there is a "huge unmet need for contraception" in India.
"The government should focus on improving health services and educating women to facilitate and hasten fertility decline instead of imposing such laws," Pachauri said.
India's population of more than 1 billion -- about 17 percent of the world population -- grows by 18 million people each year. The Washington-based Population Reference Bureau predicts that India could overtake China as the world's most populous country by 2050. And although India has shown considerable success in lowering birth rates, doubling life expectancy and reducing total fertility rate from 6.6 children per woman in 1951 to a little less than 3 in 2001, population growth continues to press national resources.
Government officials in Chattisgarh say population control demands more aggressive action.
"We can't wait forever. The empowerment route advocated by the Cairo declaration is a long process and we would have added another billion by then," said M.K. Raut, who oversees local councils in Chattisgarh. "The council heads should be role models for the village community. Yes, it is coercion. But with a billion-plus people, family size is no longer a personal matter."
National health officials in New Delhi said the government cannot regulate state decisions on population issues. The government imposed forced sterilization for men during a national emergency imposed in the mid-1970s but eliminated the measure following public opposition. Since then, the government has avoided such heavy-handed policies to restrict family size, but some states have passed laws that conflict with the national policy.
Women's groups have complained to the National Human Rights Commission that the two-child rule in some states is discriminatory and violates democratic principles. Activists also have warned that regulating family size will distort the male-female birth rate. About 5 million female fetuses are aborted annually in India, according to the Health Ministry. That figure is likely to increase if governments cap the number of children at two.
"It has taken us so long to bring women into the politics. But now the population laws are dethroning them," said Ranjana Kumari of the Center for Social Research, a group that trains women for political careers on village councils. "Many Indian women are not free to decide the number of children" they have.
More than 4,000 elected local council members, men and women, have lost their jobs in the states that impose the two-child law, according to Mahila Chetna Manch, a nongovernmental organization researching the issue. Raut, the official in Chattisgarh, said some council members offer excuses to avoid being dismissed.
"They claim the contraceptive failed or the sterilization operation proved ineffective," Raut said. "Some hurriedly give up their child for adoption to relatives; others say they did not know about the law."
One council member, Yashwant Sahu, of the village of Paloud, lost his job in 2002 after his wife had a third daughter. After that, they had a fourth child, a boy.
"The number of children I have does not determine if I will be a good sarpanch," said Sahu, 33. "Anyway, I have no regrets. A sarpanch's term lasts five years. A son is forever."