Ashish Bose

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Ashish Bose

The Times of India

The man who coined BIMARU

The memoirs of India’s best known demographer have aptly come during Census 2010

Rashmee Roshan Lall | TNN

It is a curious coincidence – or a great publishing coup – that the memoirs of India’s best known demographer come when the country is furiously engaged in a headcount. Ashish Bose’s slim “collection of random pieces” comes even as more than two million enumerators and supervisors visit 240 million Indian homes, 600,000 villages, 7,000 towns and 600 districts in an 11-month exercise that will cost $1 bn.

Bose’s preface makes proud reference to India’s great enduring tradition of decennial census operations. He says that India has an “uninterrupted record…from 1881”. At the outset, he corrects a popular fallacy, which holds that India has conducted a comprehensive census regularly since 1872.

This is just one small reason to read “Headcount”. It is a fascinating account by a man who clearly led a fascinating life, but has remained unassuming and unaffected. Bose, an honorary professor at Delhi University’s Institute of Economic Growth, is widely considered to have formidable expertise on Indian and Asian population studies and has acted as a consultant to the United Nations at several international conferences on population and demographics.

He has written and co-edited 25 books, papers and government reports and is a leading commentator on the effects of urban growth and rural and industrial development. But he wears his eminence lightly. His account of meeting Pandit Nehru as a starstruck student and being turned down in his request that independent India’s first prime minister give a talk to Delhi University students is refreshingly free of pompous self-love.

This is the inaugural piece of 27 and brilliantly sets the tone for Bose’s reminiscences of an interesting and varied life – shepherding Indira Gandhi around when he was a students’ union leader and she merely an undistinguished “nobody” albeit “with high protocol status”; meeting Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in his distinguished capacity as a population expert; flying into Manila at the express invitation of Imelda Marcos, wife of the Philippines president, back before she became infamous for her shoe fetish; meeting J R D Tata and being able to drum up Rs 2 lakh from him for an international conference on population.

Bose, now 80, is clearly a great raconteur and has a remarkable memory of some of the key people and events that shaped modern India. He might have been forgiven for being pompous. This is the man who coined BIMARU, the acronym that explains the dichotomy of the Indian growth story – with some northern states languishing in abject poverty while the south was dynamic. In BIMARU – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP – Bose captured the essence of India’s population problem, ie, large, “demographically sick” northern states could not be lumped with smaller, more successful and relatively prosperous ones.

Bose’s plainspeak to Gandhi, the man he dubs “a pilot in the prime minister’s saddle”, led to increased focus on the BIMARU states. But for all the theorizing and statistical back-up Bose provided, BIMARU never really become a slogan-challenge for the government to overcome.

The great demographer philosophically took it in his stride, recounting how when he found “Rajiv Gandhi’s interest in population gradually waning as he got increasingly involved in the Bofors scandal”, a newly appointed deputy minister Krishna “Nirodh” Kumar took over. Kumar had a policy disagreement with Bose, eventually lost the family planning portfolio and was transferred to the textiles ministry. Bose drily recalls a babu commenting that Kumar was transferred to textiles and “now he can spin a yarn”.

Bose might have dined out on these and other droll stories for years. But he retells them well enough for them to seem fresh.

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