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Go figure: Development indicators in Gandhi pocket boroughs

Go figure: Development indicators in Gandhi pocket boroughs

Author: Bibek Debroy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: May 5, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/go-figure-development-indicators-in-gandhi-pocket-boroughs/454856/

Purulia, Amethi, Kalahandi and Rae Bareli -- these are India's most backward regions by any criterion. There is no easy geographical matching of constituencies with districts, with data usually available for the latter, not the former. The only organization I know that has done this matching-cum-mapping is Indicus Analytics and consequent constituency-level data on socio-economic variables (some social and physical infrastructure) are available for 2004 and 2008.

The Congress-CPM face-off began with a Congress statement about Purulia being worse than Kalahandi, and the CPM brought in Amethi and Rae Bareli. If there are several variables, it is possible a geographical area performs better than another on some variables, but not on others. Having said this, across socio-economic variables, it is true one can't really argue out a case for Purulia being worse than Kalahandi.

But the key question isn't political debating points. Nor should one get obsessed about whether one constituency or district is superior to others. Have these constituencies improved significantly over time? And what is the role of an MP in furthering this improvement? That is the question one should ask.

And one has variables like poverty rates, per capita income, agricultural employment, secondary sector employment, literacy, urbanization, work participation rates, immunization, under-five and infant mortality rates, electrification, piped drinking water and institutional delivery to play around with. Tracking progress from 2004 to 2008, what's remarkable is poverty ratios have increased in Rae Bareli and Kalahandi, immunization of children has declined in Amethi, Rae Bareli and Kalahandi, percentage households with electricity connections has declined in Amethi, and per capita expenditure has declined in Amethi and Rae Bareli.

One should acknowledge there are problems with data and often one uses extrapolations, interpolations and imputations to plug gaps. However, this reversal of development (according to some indicators) is robust enough to warrant serious examination. Is there a statistical issue because constituencies have been reclassified? Is there a migration issue? Is there a population growth issue so that per capita indicators exhibit worsening? I don't know the answer.

In broader reform discourse, there is a difference between absolute indicators like poverty and relative indicators like inequality. Higher inequality may be tolerated, if accompanied by reduction in poverty. However, if absolute indicators show worsening poverty, we do have a problem, including the serious one about efficiency of public expenditure and delivery of public goods and services. In that sense, this is more than Congress and CPM taking potshots at one another.

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