Reporting live from Satara – HDI through field glasses

My first blog post from Satara was a basic introduction to our project on long term savings and the second was about some preliminary results from our baseline data. This post is not technically about the project but is more about the setting in which we conduct it. Social scientists who are not economists begrudge our perpetual need to over-simplify things into one number or index: e.g. focusing on the literacy rate while ignoring the quality of education, gender differentials or the content of education. While I wholly support the stance of economists who need to aggregate and streamline facts to make cogent policy recommendations, there is no denying the fact that there is a lot of information that gets excluded in the process. I make no ambitious claims to override existing measures for development, but I do think that there are some informal factors that can help us put our fingers on the contextual pulse of an area… and well, it is more fun than Google-ing.

Here is a thought experiment: suppose you were visiting us in Dahiwadi, Satara and were wondering how developed it is. Imagine that this is before the era of smartphones and you did not have access to facts such as HDI (Human Development Index), growth rates and other such indices of progress that economists tend to look at. The components of the HDI are basically economic (per capita income), educational (mean years of schooling) and health (life expectancy) measures of well-being.  Below are some general ideas that help us gauge similar components without any reliance on data and are based solely on the conversations that you may have with the locals (in a hybrid  version of Marathi and Hindi).

Economic Indicators - On your way to Dahiwadi from Pune or Satara, ask the person sitting next to you (on the bus or Hemantji if you’re being chauffeur driven) about the weather. The amount of time and the attitude with which anyone talks about the weather will suffice for us to have a rough idea about the economic well-being of most families living here. Most households are engaged in some sort of agrarian practice or the other and in this region agriculture is mostly rain-fed. Dahiwadi and the surrounding areas have faced two years of failed monsoons and it is now impossible to talk about the weather without the word “dushkaal” (bad times) cropping up. Another question you can ask your co-traveller is about their family and where each member of the household currently resides. As with most small towns, Dahiwadi sees a lot of migration and most families have at least one member who is working in Pune or Mumbai. Whether this is an indicator of rising aspirations or a lack of local opportunities is debatable; but I would say both. Overall, I find the level of economic welfare to be worrying.

Educational Indicators – I usually find summary statistics like mean years of schooling or literacy rates slightly meaningless (however useful they may be). During our surveys, we find that respondents are usually able to sign their own names but little else (I actually find this level of attainment more of a potential danger than an accomplishment) and often the more informed of our field staff have only completed basic schooling compared to our post-graduate surveyors. Education is important not as a token achievement but as a means to empower oneself or as an enabler in making informed decisions. So while it may be difficult to estimate complex ideas like financial literacy or legal awareness through casual chit-chat, two topics will yield concrete results: politics and marriage. Mention Sharad Pawar or Bal (and you must say “sahib”) Thackeray and anyone will launch into narrations of the local and state level dynamics of power. I can gladly say that in Dahiwadi, people value their choices and are aware of the circumstances around them.

Another slightly unconventional indicator of the same characteristic (i.e. informed/empowered decision making) is the prevalence of love marriages. While I am not endorsing them over the traditionally “arranged” types, love marriages do indicate an inclination to make choices for oneself and an openness or tolerance towards other communities. During the time-frame of our project on pensions, there have been 6 staff weddings. Out of them, 4 have been elopements or family-approved love marriages. In all cases, the family members have ultimately supported the unions whole-heartedly. This is not especially skewed towards CMF field staff but a general trend here which I think is somewhat encouraging.

Health Indicators – If your trip to our field office is long enough for a walk around town, it will be hard to miss the proliferation of private hospitals and government health care centers in Dahiwadi. The presence or the access to healthcare is however deceptive. Firstly, there is a very low level of medical awareness – visits to the doctor for the common cold are not that uncommon (the ensuing bill amount is usually around Rs.400). Secondly, the panacea for all illnesses – be it a stomachache, a fever or even a sprain – is a saline injection. Unless something is intravenously injected, the perception here is that medical treatment is incomplete.

Another indicator of physical well-being can be estimated during lunchtime at the Dahiwadi field office. There will invariably be more than one person fasting on any given day for some god or the other – this practice increases with females. Apart from the widely accepted notion that women sacrifice their own food when there is a scarcity in the household, it is a common practice in many cultures to fast for religious reasons during times of food shortage as a coping mechanism. These are practices which will have serious effects on nutritional well-being, especially when they are prolonged week after week as they are here. I am a strong supporter of visual indicators (anthropometric measures) such as height-weight ratios etc. (Deaton & Dreze, 2009) and even a cursory glance around at the bus depot will indicate that there is evidence of stunting and deficiencies.   

Disclaimer: This blog post is not to be taken seriously. It is just that it has been an interesting and fun experience to observe how advances in development are manifested in visible, everyday forms. After writing this post, I found out that Satara has a HDI of 0.59. I don’t know what image that conjures up in your mind but I hope that this post has conjured up a more colorful one.
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