Bluntness marks Ashish Bose who has destroyed more myths about India’s development and population growth than anyone else. No government, says the country’s foremost demographer, is capable of tackling the population problem because it is incapable of understanding the issue or doing anything about it. Since the infamous nasbandi (sterilisation) programme of Sanjay Gandhi which led to the defeat of Indira Gandhi in the 1977 election, governments have been afraid to take the problem head on.
In an interview to Latha Jishnu, Bose minces no words in dismissing the current fixation of the government—and the world —with India’s demographic dividend. This is a term used to describe the period when a greater proportion of the population of a country is young and in the working age-group. This enables the state to cut spending on dependants and is expected to spur economic growth. But, far from providing a dividend, the number of the young in India will be a demographic nightmare, he warns. “We have millions of anguta chhaaps (people who sign with their fingerprints because they are illiterate) and what is the outlook for them?” Bose, 82, pioneered the study of population at Delhi’s Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) where he headed its Population Research Centre for decades. He has sifted through enormous amounts of data, classified and segregated it, and written dozens of books and magazine articles that have helped us understand how and where our numbers have grown and why.
But the emeritus professor’s forte is not just numbers. He is a sharp observer of economic and sociological phenomena and a great believer in field research. Once, when he lay ill in a Delhi nursing home, he stated a survey about Kerala nurses that uncovered eye-opening facts about their social and economic profile. Bose is a fascinating raconteur who has dozens of delightful anecdotes about his encounters with prime ministers, lesser ministers and bureaucrats on the population issue. Excerpts from the interview