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Monday, May 21, 2007

Body mass politic: An article in Indian Express by Bibek Debroy

Is there a better question to ask, as the UPA completes three years, than who really is the aam aadmi? Who are India’s poor? How does public policy select the right beneficiaries? ‘Weaker sections’ is a vague expression. ‘Backward classes’ is a shade more precise, though we can go around in circles trying to define working class, lower class, proletariat, lumpen-proletariat, lower class, under-class and slave-class. Marxist taxonomy has contributed to further confusion. But it is obvious that class is fundamentally an economic construct.

Note that in 1963, when a 50 per cent cap was imposed by courts in the Balaji case, 50 per cent of India’s population was indeed below the poverty line (BPL). NSS (National Sample Survey) data show a BPL figure of 27.5 per cent in 2004-05 according to one method (uniform recall) and 21.8 per cent according to a different method (mixed recall). Today, if we continue to harp on 50 per cent, we fail to recognise India has changed. And we do harp on 50 per cent. 15 per cent for SCs and 7.5 per cent for STs add up to 22.5 per cent. Since courts allow 50 per cent, 27.5 per cent must be other backward classes (OBCs). That’s a far better justification of the 27 per cent OBC figure than the 1931 Census, though there is a minor complication because combined SC/ST share in the total population has increased to 24.4 per cent. There is a tendency to assume all categories of people must be poor — SCs/STs, OBCs, women, physically handicapped, ex-servicemen, those born from inter-caste marriages, dependents of army forces personnel killed in action, Muslims (after Sachar Committee).

They must all benefit, not from positive affirmation, but from its Indian counterpart, reservations and quotas. There is a joke floating around on the Net about a rich girl (in KG) who was asked to write an essay about a poor family. This family (the couple and their two children), their gardener, driver, guard and four dogs were all poor. The family hadn’t eaten chicken for two days, the Mercedes hadn’t been serviced, the AC wasn’t working properly, the house hadn’t been painted for one year, the last foreign vacation was six months ago and so on. The point should be obvious to anyone not inordinately dumb, unless that person happens to be a politician. By correlating class (which is what one should be after) with caste, a double mistake is committed. First, one assumes everyone in a backward caste is economically backward (the so-called creamy layer issue). Second, one assumes everyone in a forward caste is economically forward, even if that person happens to reside in the rural back-of-beyond of eastern UP. The worst BPL state is Orissa, with a BPL figure

of 46.4 per cent — worse than Bihar. Isn’t it incongruous that the backward caste (SCs/STs/OBCs and based on NSS 1999-2000 data) population should be 29 per cent in Orissa and 66 per cent in

Tamil Nadu?

There can be a legitimate debate about whether reservations (education or jobs) are the best mode. But the broader issue is of identifying the poor (poverty not meaning income poverty alone), an exercise also required for subsidy targeting. One needs a BPL census rather than an OBC census. But since that’s difficult and also prone to abuse, are there other indicators one can use, spliced into an index? Since some districts (around 100) lack any physical or social infrastructure worth the name, one can also build that collective element into the index. Such indices have been suggested by Purushottam Agrawal (JNU), Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande (CSDS) and Sachar Committee. In addition, there are 13 parameters suggested by the Planning Commission. Whichever technique is used, if the overall beneficiary figure (including for reservations) is more than 20 per cent, we are going wrong. And we will also go wrong if the bulk of beneficiaries aren’t in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Bihar, UP, Orissa, MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, not Tamil Nadu and Andhra.

However, an index is often too complicated. UNDP’s human development index (HDI) is a case in point, based on per capita income, education and health indicators alone. Its virtue is simplicity. Other indicators could have been included (and there was a debate when HDI first surfaced in 1990), but it transpires these three capture all we want. The National Family Health Survey found (1998-99) 47 per cent of children (under 3) are under-weight. A Nutrition Foundation of India study (2002) found 29 per cent of Delhi’s children (4-18 years) in a private school are over-weight. How many poor individuals are obese or over-weight? If we based reservation criteria on per capita income, BMI (body mass index) and mother’s literacy, we would probably do a far better job at identifying those who need reservations. Twenty other indicators can be added, but that loses the virtue of simplicity. As HDI (which is also an indicator of deprivation) showed, because of correlations, a few simple indicators often suffice. In any event, BMI is far superior to caste. Caste may lead to roads being named after specific individuals, but as a public policy tool, it is a road that leads nowhere. Remember the song ‘Road to Nowhere’? That has a line, “But they’ll make a fool of you.” That is what politics has always been.

The writer is an economist