Chennai: There’s very little evidence of convergence on social indicators among Indian states, new data on health, education and access to basic amenities between 1998-99 and 2015-16 shows. Over nearly two decades, the “BIMARU" states have remained at the bottom, while Kerala, Punjab, Goa and Delhi remain at the top. Bihar has remained India’s poorest state over the period.

The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) is a relatively new composite index that seeks to fix some of the conceptual and statistical problems with United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) widely used Human Development Index (HDI). One major criticism of the HDI was that it is too strongly determined by its income component.

The MPI, created by Sabina Alkire and James Foster of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, uses 10 indicators to measure poverty in three dimensions: education, health and living standards. If an individual is deprived in a third or more of ten weighted indicators, the index identifies them as poor, and the intensity of their poverty is measured by the number of deprivations they are experiencing.

In its 2018 update, India’s MPI index in 2018 was 0.121, placing it 53rd out of 105 developing countries for which data was available. Poor nutrition was the largest contributor to India’s multidimensional poverty while insufficient access to clean water and child mortality contributed the least. Relatively few people experienced deprivations in school attendance.

The number represented a vast improvement since 2005-06, the last time India made nationally representative health data available; since then, the incidence of multidimensional poverty has nearly halved with the poorest groups making the biggest leaps.

Yet, there are pockets of sub-Saharan poverty in India, and its poorest district (Alirajpur in Madhya Pradesh) has an MPI value worse than all but eight countries. Save for five (two in Gujarat and one each in Maharashtra, Assam and Haryana), all of the poorest 50 districts in the country are in the erstwhile BIMARU states—Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh—and 91 of the poorest 100 are concentrated in these seven states.

Prior to state elections these states, political leaders have sought to claim that because of their leadership, their state is no longer “BIMARU".

While campaigning for Bihar in 2015 against the Janata Dal (United), or JDU, alliance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were no longer “BIMARU" and Bihar needed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan’s chief ministers are currently campaigning on their states no longer being “BIMARU".

Coined in the early 1980s by demographer Ashish Bose, the acronym was used for the northern states contributing significantly to India’s population explosion. In 2015, economist Vinita Sharma updated Bose’s analysis and found that while states had made progress individually, they had not converged with the southern states; in fact on half of the 13 indicators used in Bose’s analysis, they had diverged.

From 1998-99 to 2015-16, Bihar remained India’s multidimensionally poorest state. While Odisha was next to Bihar at the bottom in the late 1990s, it has improved significantly over the last two decades. In the same time, Madhya Pradesh (and later Chhattisgarh) and Uttar Pradesh joined Bihar (and later Jharkhand) at the bottom. Between them, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have over 320 million multidimensionally poor people. Over half the population in Bihar, and over 40% in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are multidimensionally poor.

At the other end, just 1% of people in Kerala, and between 4 to 7% in Delhi, Punjab, Goa, Sikkim and Tamil Nadu are multidimensionally poor. The richest Indian states now resemble upper middle income countries like Jordan, Brazil, and Thailand in terms of multidimensional poverty.

Nor is there evidence that states are converging in terms of indicators or outcomes. The states with the highest reductions in their index values were the ones that were already better off, making real convergence that much further off. Kerala reduced its already-low levels of multidimensional poverty by 92%, the highest of any states, while Bihar was again at the bottom at 45%.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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