Body mass politic

Liked with Bibek Debroy – India.

Published by Bibek Debroy, The Indian Express, May 22, 2007.

A simple index can track real deprivation. Caste is so misguiding as policy tool.

Two excerpts: 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) …

… 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). (full text).

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