Cow country is rich only in numbers

Twenty-first Century India
October 14, 2005

This edited volume grew out of a Wellcome Trust-funded research project examining the consequences of the future growth of India's population. The project team of eleven are all authors, and there are four major consultants, two of whom are also authors. As the preface says: "This may not be the first book on India's population and development." Indeed one of the editors, Robert Cassen, published India: Population, Economy and Society in 1978, which became a central text for many courses on India's development.

This new book, which has 15 substantive chapters plus introductory and concluding chapters, is obviously more up to date. However, it lacks coherence. Similar topics - water, for example - may turn up in different parts of different chapters, sometimes with rather contradictory scales of analysis and interpretations. One or more of the editors has clearly put a lot of effort into trying to achieve consistency of style, but there have had to be concessions to individual idiosyncrasies as well.

The first substantive chapter is Tim Dyson's useful review of India's demographic history. The fertility rate has been falling fast in recent decades, but the simple fact of the addition of 180 million people between the 1991 and 2001 censuses poses questions. With a young rather than an ageing population, 500 million people more will be added before zero growth is achieved.

The next two chapters, by Leela Visaria, examine at the state level the changing mortality rates, the health transition and the fertility transition. The analyses are based on the "major states" - explicitly excluding the "seven sisters" states of India's northeast (and Jammu and Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh as well). A significant point is the huge variation in experiences across India, and the north-south divide, on many characteristics. At different points in the book, it is acknowledged that there may be as much, if not more, variation at the district level within states as there is between states.

Dyson then attempts population projections to 2026 using state-level data.

He emphasises that these are not predictions, and, as an example of contingency, discusses the complications that HIV/Aids brings. His model does not disaggregate the population within states into urban and rural components, although the next chapter (by Dyson and Pravin Visaria) notes their different demographic regimes. It highlights the future population growth of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (55 per cent of predicted national increments to 2026). It does not tell the reader that these states have the disparaging nickname of Bimaru - or "the cow belt".

The chapters on education and literacy stress how the private sector, even for the poor and at primary level, is making up for the poor performance of state education. The chapter on employment is worrying: despite economic growth, unemployment is rising. Such growth as there has been is more in what is termed the "unorganised" sector (elsewhere this would have been termed the informal or domestic sector), but even here there is insufficient growth.

Three chapters on the level of poverty (which is declining, but Bimaru is still, in absolute numbers, the world epicentre of poverty), the economy and future food supply are object lessons in acknowledging the contradictory results that different data sources and methods of computation may produce. India's agricultural growth has stalled in recent years: there is reason not to be complacent about the future. The chapter dealing with the economy is weak and hardly mentions problems over oil, while the section on energy, which discusses the promise of renewable-energy technology, shows little understanding of India's specific conditions. A chapter on India's urban environment indulges in unjustified analyses of city sizes, employing the archaic census classes of cities, which would mean something only to old India hands.

Well-known general material available elsewhere is repeated in the chapter on water - perhaps a danger when employing well-known experts. The chapter on common property resources has some interesting insights and a plea that common property resources should not be seen solely defensively - that is, as a safety net for the poor - but in other more positive ways.

The book's concluding chapter contains a nugget unmentioned in the main text and one that caught me by surprise: the fact that since 1977 the representation in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) has been frozen on the basis of the results of the 1971 census, so that the demographically "advanced" south does not lose out politically to Bimaru. This fuels regional political tension. Otherwise, this chapter is rather a weak reprise, and although titled "Lessons and policies", I doubt whether any politician in Delhi will find much here as grist to the mill.

This book will be a useful addition to my reading lists, mostly for its up-to-date and comprehensive material on India's demography.

Graham Chapman is professor of geography, Lancaster University, and chairman, British Association for South Asian Studies.

Twenty-first Century India: Population, Economy, Human Development and the Environment

Editor - Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen and Leela Visaria
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 412
Price - £74.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 924335 2and 928382 6

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