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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Good effort on combining maps with economic data

In the EPW of 22 April 2006, I wrote this book review of Social & Economic Profile of India by Peeyush Bajpai, Laveesh Bhandari and Aali Sinha. It is published by Social Science Press, 2005.

In the old days, there were the fascinating established disciplines of `regional economics' or `economic geography'. These lost ground over the decades, and well-trained contemporary economists have typically not studied these fields. The typical modern economist is highly conscious of time-series econometrics, but has only a rudimentary grasp of handling spatially organised data. In recent years, however, economic geography has come to enjoy a renaissance, through three factors.

The first is the new work by Paul Krugman and others which seeks to link up geography into the core questions of economics. For example, while classical trade theory focused on gains from trade through differences in factor endowments, contemporary trade theory is greatly concerned with geographical distance. The second factor at work is the heightened interest in spatial distributions of income and purchasing power on the part of the marketing fraternity, which has brought new kind of interest in learning about these questions as also an impetus for improving the informational foundations. The third factor at work has been the remarkable marriage of computers and maps with economic data, which has made it easy to visualise spatial data using interactive software systems which go by the fancy name of `geographical information systems' (GIS).

Bajpai, Bhandari and Sinha have come out with a volume titled `Social & Economic Profile of India'. In my knowledge, this represents a first effort at marrying computers, maps and economic data to produce an economic atlas of this fashion. So far in India, there are some strong GIS systems, and there are strong spatial databases. This book is the first time these have come together in a satisfactory fashion.

The authors must be commended for scouring the statistical system for spatial data. In some cases, the unit of observation is the state. In some cases, the unit of observation is the district. A very wide range of sources have been tapped to put together this volume. In some cases, the `standard sources' do not offer a certain kind of information, but the authors have reduced NSSO or NFHS data into summary statistics organised by location.

Every page of the volume is a map (in colour). Social Science Press has done an equally remarkable job of bringing world-class paper and printing to bear on this problem. As little as five to ten years ago, it was not possible to envision a book like this about India, but this has now become a reality.

The content of the book is organised as sections on Demography, Geography, Poverty and hunger, Health, Education, Water and sanitation, Employment, Fiscal analysis, Mass media, Safety and justice, Economic profile and Decentralisation. This is a fair depiction of what the Indian statistical system offers in the field. I was particularly impressed at the effort that the authors have taken to obtain data on issues of law and order and the judiciary, which tend to be ignored by the economics profession. Problems of law and order are increasingly shaping up as a central task of the State in addressing the poverty traps in the country, since participation in markets, investments in human and physical capital, and the equalising-differences of the price system cannot come into play until safety of life and property is assured.

I wandered through the book from end to end several times. Such such unstructured browsing is strongly recommended for the intelligent layman, and I am sure that each reader will take away different insights from this material. If there is one thing that I am struck by, it is the extent to which the stories are correlated. There is a powerful single factor called economic growth, which appears to affect a diverse array of spatially organised data.


  1. William Nordhaus (of Yale University) has put up similar material in his website with lots of graphs and pictures showing the dispersion of economic activity across the globe..Problem is that for India the data used to generate the figures is pretty dated (1990s) there any better online source for such data for India??

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