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The Microcosm in Demography

Demography Beyond Demography: Dialogue with People Collection of essays reprinted from by Ashish Bose; BR Publishing Corporation, Delhi,
wrote what he felt, what he saw, what he learnt from various sources

The Microcosm in


Beyond Demography: Dialogue with People

Collection of essays reprinted from Economic and Political Weekly by Ashish Bose; BR Publishing Corporation, Delhi, 2006; pp 344, Rs 795.


aving been an admirer of Ashish Bose’s work, to read his EPW commentaries within one cover is a rare treat. More than the contents, the volume is suffused with the essential Bose spirit – the unique demographer who “went where no demographer had gone before”, the humane scientist who listened to people’s voices, the indefatigable researcher who trekked miles in remote, inaccessible places to gather first hand how people live, and learn about their aspirations and tribulations. One thinks of Bose as the man who talked and talked, walked and walked, read and wrote what he felt, what he saw, what he learnt from various sources – a spontaneous recorder. He helped us to get away from the notion of “population” which dehumanises people into an undifferentiated mass. Bose presents the microcosm in micro demography. He does not stop with only interesting anecdotal narratives but there is plenty in the book on “solid demography” with statistical tables in 12 pages to please the cognoscenti. He is generous in his praise of dedicated officials, voluntary workers and academics. He had this penchant for coining acronyms which have passed into our common vocabulary. For instance, his famous “BIMARU” for states that have performed so badly on every indicator of human development: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Despite sending six prime ministers to govern our country, UP continues as a sick state. Talking of decline of female children he coins the acronym “DEMARU” to indicate districts that practise female elimination through use of modern technology, “districts-daughter-eliminating-male aspiring rage-ultra sound”.

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

About the Book

The book is not chronologically arranged but by themes: Part I deals with vulnerable people and places; Part II deals with Census 2001, Part III deals with data and research, Part IV international vignettes. A review of his earlier book co-authored with Mala Kapoor Shankardass titled A Comprehensive Look at Ageing – Growing Old in India: Voices Reveal, Statistics Speak by BR Publishing in 2004 also appears in this volume. There is a foreword by K N Raj. A comprehensive index at the end of the book adds further value to it. Each chapter carries sources used and acknowledgements to various worthies.

Part I is like a dramatic opening scene: ‘Missing Men and Lonely Women’. Feminist scholars have been repeatedly hammering at our male, urban biased data gatherers on their unrealistic truth distorting definition of “worker” and “work”. After decades, while some concessions have been made, gender bias dogs us. Recently that august institution, the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, has become enamoured of the totally western import of calling women’s work “care work’’ and they call care economy the whole spectrum of unpaid work done in rural India by women which is active productive work, and adds to the resources and assets of the rural household, not just consumption processing like putting bread in the toaster. Rural Indian women’s work is not equivalent to just looking after children, the elderly, and the sick, cooking and cleaning, which we understand as “domestic work” and which Devaki Jain called the three Cs. What they do is the three Cs plus. And the plus is a very large component. Rural households, particularly poorer households, do not do gourmet cooking, spend hours fetching children from school or teaching homework – they are busy and how!

To quote Bose, who watched village women in the lower Himalayas whose men have migrated leaving women to tend their farms: ‘‘I watch women working in the fields and forests from sunrise to sunset, cutting grass for livestock, bathing and feeding the cattle and goats, preparing food for the family, fetching household water from the ‘nauala’ (stream) down the hills and the steep climb back with collecting firewood from the forest, cutting fresh grass again in the evening, feeding the animals, smoking the cowshed by burning damp dead leaves and dung to keep mosquitoes away, collecting pine needles for bedding the cowsheds, locking the animals securely inside to protect them from prowling leopards at night. The range of agricultural activities is formidable: weeding, preparing the soil for sowing foodgrains and seasonal vegetables, transplanting, taking care of the fruit trees and crops from insects, birds, monkeys, preparing for the next crop and storing the foodgrains.” The UNSNA (UN system of national accounts) calls these extended labour force activities.

Delicate Balance

Bose understood the intricate balance between ecology, economy and society which our planners and policy-makers, not excluding demographers, fail to understand. The Himalayan region is seismically vulnerable yet far from having a viable disaster management system, and there are activities that threaten this delicate balance like tourism, timber felling and road building.

I cannot but recall my trip to Meghalaya – another hilly terrain – where some international agency promoted turmeric cultivation without transport or marketing arrangements. Yet every corner shop served Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola. A well meaning union government official whom I happened to meet boasted to me with great pride how he was hauling PCs by elephants to Meghalaya. We all have such experiences of the utter absurdity of officialdom but Bose captures this very well in gentle satire.

Among the disasters he mentions Punjab – once one of the glories of the green revolution, which rode on the backs of seasonal migrant labour from Bihar and UP, now stricken with contradictions: a hard working, hardy people imbibing modernity and its technology with gusto, flaunting the tractor1 but retaining old world values of patriarchy and family honour. While relishing ‘makkai ki roti and sarson ka sag’ in a dhaba, Bose with his puckish humour says ‘’Why not add economic and political disasters to our vocabulary of disasters? Why do we only talk of Kerala model, Tamil Nadu for success in reducing fertility? Why not the Punjab model?’’ There lies the hitch. It is also the state with “rising sons and setting daughters” in Satish Agnihotri’s words – where the sex ratio of females to 1,000 males has come down drastically. Though there are many voluntary agencies trying to curb the misuse of technology despite its legal ban, there has not been much success. Contrast this with progress in “empowerment” of women (Bose dislikes the word ‘empowerment’ as much as I do) in Bangladesh where Gono Sastha Kendra has recruited women drivers to promote family planning. An achievement for erstwhile purdah clad women. Punjab has come to grief with cotton cultivation. The farmers have a pesticide called “karate”. Globalisation is the greatest pest, not the bollworm which afflicted the cotton crop, says Manjit Singh.

From the Himalayas Bose takes us to Rajasthan. He commends the work done by the Territorial Army in getting water. Through his participation at various seminars and conferences, he draws attention to the food security work done by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation. Swaminathan has been consistently voicing the need to create an “evergreen revolution” for a hunger free India.

Coming to the census, while he applauds the census commissioner J K Banthia for his exemplary work on the 2001 Census, he is sceptical about the reliability of the census data. I happened to travel to Pune during the enumeration process of the 2001 Census. In the train were quite a few census enumerators. It was interesting how they went about their business. They filled in ages, household composition, occupation, education, etc, without going to the households. “I am putting X; you put Y so and so”. I was aghast. Yet the Indian census collects massive data and it is the most important source for all our needs. The census was used for reorganisation of states on the basis of language and for our data on SC/ST population. For such an important enterprise, Bose feels entrusting the task to disgruntled teachers with a measly pittance is a wrong strategy. There are no funds for this magnificent enterprise undertaken every 10 years without fail from 1871. The office of the Census Commissioner is located in an old Army barracks. Many of us who have had occasion to go there have experienced the dismay Bose feels. But then have we ever given up our penny wise and pound foolish approach in anything?

Region More Than Religion

As for the north-south divide in population growth, had the momentous decision not been taken to freeze the number of seats in Parliament, the burgeoning population of socially and economically backward UP would receive an unfair advantage as against the more progressive south. EPW carried the 2001 Census figures of population growth by religion which led to a lot of misunderstanding till Bose clarified the comparison with earlier decades is not valid because Assam did not have a census in

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006 1981 and J and K did not have one in 1991. If adjusted for these omissions the growth of the Muslim population is much less. What we really need to understand is that region and geographical location matter more than religion. In this context he takes to task the census for dissemination in haste without proper scrutiny. While population does need to stabilise, Bose has never approved of the target based incentivedisincentive approach in family planning (‘For Whom the Target Tolls’) which smacks of coercion. It was unfortunate that the Swaminathan committee’s draft population policy was abandoned in favour of giving primacy to “reproductive and child health” in family planning, which sees women as mere reproductive beings, making no allowance for the circumstances under which they live. Worse, the promise made in the health for all declaration remains a broken promise.

Finally Bose does not spare current research in demography. It is blinkered, mechanistic and insufficiently gender sensitive. He does not see the value of ranking countries by the human development index. It hides shocking regional disparities. After all, is well-being only material abundance, consumerism and superficial indicators? (Dosas have holes!) Is there not a deeper level where we should seek a sustainable, environmentally-friendly society, reduce disparities, lower our consumption and pursue quality of life? He suddenly reveals his Vedanta affiliation when he goes seeking his former guru at a Vedanta centre.

The last section is a digression on his visit to a ranch on California and on New York. He visits Hollywood where dreams are made. His attempt to understand the bubble in Silicon Valley through a book Dot.con is instructive for all of us. All in all he admires the vitality of America.

In this charmingly digressive, chatty book, there are omissions. He does not say much about recent reforms or economic policy or political imperatives except for the stray reference to the rule of 40 (40 per cent expected on all project disbursements by officials who are in charge of implementing). He is aware of the poor state of governance but does not address the issue. His faith in public-private-NGO partnership is not supported by experience. This has not worked. Our panchayats are ridden with casteism and corruption. I have just returned from Bangalore where I met an astounding woman doing her work for the panchayat she is an elected member of. Her stories are shocking. Listing of BPL families is done by the chairperson (who owns a ration shop). All the houses which have TV, radio, motorcycle, gas, etc, are “BPL” families. He gets the subsidised grain and sells it in the black. She has been threatened for daring to oppose him. So much for our faith in local selfgovernment! Where we go from here is what haunts all of us concerned with the fate of the millions who are the real “We, the People of India” as grandiloquently stated by our Constitution.




1 Patricia Uberoi has so beautifully shown this in her analysis of calendar pictures.

Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

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