Ashish Bose is a veteran demographer whose expertise in analysing population data persuaded the former Prime Minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi to make him an advisor on issues ranging from urbanisation to poverty alleviation. He is best known for coining the term Bimaru (shorthand for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) for states with the worst socio-economic indicators. An author of 24 books, he is now working on a book on “aam aadmi”. He takes a dim view of the performance of the UPA government and the Congress party headed by Sonia Gandhi and its claims that poverty has declined. The government should scrap all poverty lines and instead look at food prices and corruption, he tells Sreelatha Menon. Edited excerpts.
The census data on assets show that just 17 per cent of the population does not own assets like a cycle, radio or TV, unlike 34.5 per cent a decade ago. Does that not reflect a certain material well-being?
There is definitely a change. But the 17 per cent is deceptive. It hides the urban-rural difference. In rural areas, it is 22.9 per cent from 40 per cent earlier while in urban it is low, from 19 per cent to seven per cent now.
Still, doesn’t that indicate an improvement from 10 years ago? Given that, isn’t the official estimate of poverty justified?
Official statistics on poverty are not relevant... The government has, in effect, discarded its own data by setting up another committee for a new methodology. As for [Suresh] Tendulkar, I don’t wish to comment. I studied with him years ago. People with no assets may be 22.4 per cent of the population in rural areas but you should also look at the number of people who live in houses with mud floor for a more complete picture.
What does the census data on possession or dispossession indicate about the development of states?
I have found that eight states are the best of the lot while another eight are at the bottom. The worst are states in which the percentage of population without assets is above 20 per cent. For me the cut-off point is 10 per cent. Jharkhand, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, Bihar, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh fall in this list (above 20). The top ones are Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal.
Would you call them the new Bimaru? And it has no Uttar Pradesh?
No, it is not the same. Uttar Pradesh is not in this list. It is with Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the mid-level.
How did you arrive at your classification of four states as Bimaru? Was it based on asset ownership?
Bimaru means sick in Uttar Pradesh. I took size, contiguity and socio-economic conditions. This was in 1985. Rajiv Gandhi, being a pilot, respected data and he asked five people for advice without setting up any committee. I was one of them. I said the government must focus on these four states because they account for 44 per cent of the country’s population and have half its illiterate population.
Have these states improved?
No. If you were to look at the eight states I listed with the largest number of people with no assets, Jharkhand was part of Bihar and Chattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh. The smaller states, like West Bengal, are a surprise. It shows that Mamata Banerjee is right. I had excluded states like Assam and Orissa on statistical grounds earlier from the Bimaru list since I wanted only states with more than five per cent of the national population. Had Rajiv Gandhi been alive he would have taken steps to focus on their development.
What are your magic bullets for the development of these states?
Cent per cent literacy is the first step. It should be working literacy, including the ability to read in English or Hindi. Second, come down on corruption. And third, monitor and check food inflation and reduce unemployment through skilling. Anyone who has some skill is employed.
But would you not agree that poverty has finally come down?
There is no denying this, but it is blunted by food inflation. People are suffering every day. The middle classes are getting poor, and the poor are getting poorer. Nothing captures this. That poverty has gone down is all humbug. One of our problems is this lame-duck government headed by a fellow who does not take any bold decisions. It is true that without opening up the economy we would have been ruined. But credit should go to the Chanakya of our times, the late Narasimha Rao, and not Manmohan Singh. The latter was merely drafted by Rao and he blossomed there. The reforms are all this “Chanakya’s” doing. The tragedy is the TINA [there is no alternative] factor. While the Bharatiya Janata Party has no leader, Sonia is a net loss. Rahul Gandhi is not prime minister material. Moreover, the real issue is not poverty but corruption.
Academics say the poverty line should continue to be calculated for statistical purposes to assess growth.
I challenge the need to have a poverty line. There is no use appointing another committee. It is only to cook figures and to show that the government has done so much for the poor. Do you know that India is the second most populous country but is the most illiterate in the world? China has 98 per cent literacy, while India has 74 per cent. This 26 per cent illiteracy makes up for the largest illiterate chunk of humanity in absolute numbers globally.
Do you think the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act had a role to play in bringing some money to the people?
It gives 100 days. What happens to the rest of the 265 days? Crooks in the system eat half the money. These small bits anyway don’t help. You must have a thrust and a programme that means business. It can’t be done by a lame-duck government. What happened to the Garibi hatao slogan of Indira Gandhi? It was a good slogan. The United Progressive Alliance changed it to Garibi ghatao.
Since you don’t accept the poverty estimates, what is your alternative?
We should have an independent committee that monitors food prices and prices of other things that affect the common man. Then help people face these prices through temporary allowances linked to wages besides a focused programme on skilling.
What about population growth?
The government should shut down the family welfare department forever. It should also close down the Planning Commission; the calculations done by the Commission can be done by any PhD student.