Ashish Bose believes the laws of economics will conquer racism.
The prominent demographer and professor’s theory rests on supply and demand: Developed countries need migrants in large numbers as their youth populations shrink.
“Germany may not like Turkish labour and Japan may not want any foreigners, but soon these two and other nations such as Norway, Sweden and France will have to become tolerant of migrant workers as they will have too many old people,” Bose says.
India, he maintains, has the most to gain with more than half of its population under age 25.
For the record, Bose is a young 76. He climbs 15 rungs of a steep staircase to an open terrace, unsupported, deftly carrying a tray of beer glasses in one hand.
Ashish Bose has studied various economic and sociological phenomena for five decades, reducing massive populations into decimal points, then classifying and comparing them and presenting his findings to the government. He segregates data on people into tables, all part of his effort to better understand man and woman, urban and rural, dwellers of hills and seas.
However, when he talks of poverty, Bose does not rattle off numbers. Instead, he turns empathetic, offering anecdotes from his long field trips into India’s most remote corners.
“The primary health centre (PHC) in India is the greatest symbol of how little things have changed for the poor in India,” he says. “Even today, after 60 years, the condition of PHCs is the same. No doctors, nurses, medical equipment and people walking for miles to get substandard treatment. It is the greatest failure of the Indian state.”
Bluntness defines Bose. (“I am not impressed by China as there is no freedom in that country,” he says.)
It was in the early 1980s that Bose made headlines by calling a spade a spade. Indian academicians tend to be politically correct and avoid terms that could insult a community or large groups of people.
But in a one-page synopsis submitted to the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, Bose blamed the “Bimaru” states for India’s burgeoning population. The now well-known acronym stands for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. However, the term had an uncanny resemblance to the Hindi word bimar, which means sick—and implied that these states also were.
Back then, Bose was employed by the population research centre at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi. The professor’s stark description of these states demonstrated his concern for the demographic explosion in the cow belt and his need to ensure that Gandhi, who requested the report, digested his account quickly.
The paper argued that if India wanted to control its population, the government would need to focus on the states in the North as these four states accounted for more than 40% of India’s population.
Although many politicians belonging to these states reacted angrily, Bimaru continues to be used in government lexicon when describing development failures in these states.
Policymakers say Bose’s paper still has contemporary relevance.
“The purpose of academic research is to spur action on the part of the government,” Planning Commission member Anwar-ul-Hoda said in an interview with Mint six months ago. He added that the role of academics is to be honest, not necessarily sensitive. “And the concept of Bimaru is having a desired effect on our planning process to this day because we have started addressing inequities between states.”
Despite such efforts, the differences in economic and population growth rates between Bimaru and other Indian states sharpened in the 1990s.
In 2005-06, literacy rates in UP and Bihar were 56.28% and 47%, respectively, compared with Kerala’s 90.86%. Similarly, the average annual growth rate of population is 2.30% in Uttar Pradesh and 2.50% in Bihar, compared with Kerala’s 0.90%.
The professor also says that Orissa, given its falling standards, would now fit in snugly into the infamous acronym.
“You know, in French, a word ending with ‘ou’ would still be pronounced ‘u’ and Bimarou would not be out of place,” he says. “And one of my colleague’s children, after hearing us discuss how poor the indicators were in Orissa, told her teacher in class that Bimaru included Orissa.”
“Rajiv Gandhi believed in getting the data first for tackling any problem and he would also check the quality of data that was supplied to him,” remembers Bose 20 years later.
Born in Kolhapur in Maharashtra as the son of a tutor, Bose excelled in his studies and in his matriculate examination.
His interest in population studies began at Allahabad University where he challenged his lecturer on Malthus’ population theory. He won a medal from the university for proving the lecturer wrong.
In the mid-1950s, Bose joined the just-started Delhi School of Economics, under the leadership of V.K.R.V. Rao.
His Ph.d. dissertation examined urbanization in India at a time that few predicted the scale and size of India’s cities—and their problems.
He draws liberally from a reservoir of travel tales and shares the most memorable: a trip to Uttar Pradesh in the late 1960s.
A bull rammed into the jeep carrying the team of demographers in a remote part of the state and the animal was killed. The villagers—armed with lathis—closed in on the jeep and were ready to lynch the academicians. It took the intervention of a police officer-turned-sadhu and a Bengali district magistrate whose name Bose used (falsely insisting he was a relative) to save their lives.
One of Bose’s pet concerns is the plight of rural women. Bose says that classifying rural women as marginal workers in the census is a great injustice.
“In the hills where the men have migrated to the cities, the women perform all the agricultural tasks and they work from dawn to dusk. They should be accounted as full-time workers,” he says.
Apart from the people he stumbles upon, Bose says one of the greatest joys of his profession was the intellectual company. His more famous colleagues from the Institute of Economic Growth include P.N. Dhar (who became Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary), C.H. Hanumantha Rao (of the Planning Commission) and Manmohan Singh, who went on to become Prime Minister.
The professor describes Singh as a good human being, someone with whom he has shared adventures abroad.
“Once Dr Singh and I were in Paris to attend a conference when his suitcase got stolen at the airport. The next day the French police retrieved the bag,” Bose says. “The thieves had discarded the bag when all they found in it was the economist’s ready-to-wear turban.”
Long walks in the remote hamlets of the Himalayas, the jungles of the North-East and the plains of the South have perhaps contributed to Bose’s robust health—mental and physical. The professor’s companions at home include his wife Manjula and their dog Polly; Bose says the pup “adopted” them as they mourned the death of their prized Dalmatians.
“Come on, let me show you my ideation room,” Bose says suddenly.
The room amounts to a hut erected on the terrace. It is the professor’s getaway from the world of numbers, as well as his yoga room. Until his eyes got affected recently, he routinely used to offer shirshaasan demonstrations, standing on his head.
“Old people should never retire. That is where so many of the elderly go wrong,” Bose says. “They should continue to work.”
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to email@example.com)