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India: Demographer Ashis Bose was a renaissance man

11 April 2014

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Hindustan Times - April 09, 2014

Demographer Ashis Bose was a renaissance man

Rakesh Batabyal

With the death of Ashis Bose, India’s foremost demographer, the academic community has lost one of its shining members who not only taught well and researched well but also talked to the powers that be: An inalienable quality of an intellectual.

Born in 1930, Bose spent his formative years in Kolhapur and then moved to Delhi to study at the Delhi School of Economics. He was one of the first demographers in India: The country had the world’s second largest population and so became the field for all sorts of theory building and data crunching by foreigners.

Bose, more than anybody else, gave a special dimension to Indian demography by providing it with a human face: He linked it to the larger developmental debate.

He was the product of the confidant Indian generation that wanted to have a self-reliant economy and also an autonomous intellectual world that could think of solving Indian problems with its own methods.

Bose symbolised this in the area of demography the most. During the family planning campaign in the early 1970s, he had his first brush with US experts who presented a solution: Advertising the family planning logo on the elephants walking through villages. In his typical sharp and witty fashion, Bose called it an ‘asinine solution to an elephantine problem’ and stopped such idiotic attempts.

This was quintessential Bose who could explain a problem in a few words: It is this uncanny ability that made him coin the term Bimaru states to convey the fact that the most-populous states did very badly when it came to social indices and he wanted the political leadership, in this case Rajiv Gandhi, to take note and initiative.

The term also indicated development was beginning to divide the country along developmental lines: Southern states were doing better than the ones in the north.

Bose was very much alive to the political implication of this difference: He did not say this officially but privately acknowledged the serious political implication of this divide.

Bose’s extensive field work sharpened his observations. He brook no tired and lazy theorists. When I first met him, his first question was whether I had done my field work well or was just using jargons.

He was concerned about the regional and gender differences and it was his ability to smell things from his field surveys that led to Darkness at Noon: Female Foeticide in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

The monograph made the crisis public and indicated the skewed developmental processes.

Bose was a quintessential renaissance person: Sought solution to major problems. He looked towards the political class for solution and wanted the Indian academia to provide perspectives for solving vexed problems.

With his death, we have lost one more link to our rich intellectual past that the confidence of the Independence movement had brought to us.

Rakesh Batabyal is associate professor, Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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