Most people in Kurigram, home to the largest army of the country's poor, don't know how the borderline of their economic conditions is delineated as the poverty line can never be seen with eyes. But that is how their status in society is defined and we've almost unquestionably accepted the way poverty is measured for taking policy measures.
This practice is similar to how GDP (gross domestic product) is used, to reflect on a country's economy and development trends.
The tendency to quantify everything in life has been so rampant that people even want to measure happiness. The World Happiness Index is perhaps the best attempt so far among all others, to understand human welfare. And that, too, has been an outcome of the modern-day fashion replete with innumerable indices.
Questions are already being asked if indicators like GDP are really indicative of the ground reality and people's real-life issues. While many such indices were tailor-made to measure certain situation for taking remedial measures, the objectives are often lost in the desperate attempts for showing development, be it artificial.
Ranked poorly in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index, Bangladesh has been in recent years trying to make improvement in the country's ranking, mainly to convince the foreign investors that the national business climate is good.
"Authorities try to address problems in some areas so that the country's position in the index is elevated and some businesses see that positively. However, addressing one or two issues may not be beneficial to some others," a former World Bank private sector specialist Syed Akhtar Mahmood said of limitations of such ranking.
Still, the drive by the authorities to see elevation in the WB index is limited to a bureaucratic process; a holistic approach to bring governance changes is avoided. "Bureaucracy, for example, concentrates more on the process of the indicators - such as availability of funds and spending - instead of focusing on outcome like public welfare," Hossain Zillur Rahman, Executive Chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre, explained at a discussion on "The Politics of Development Indicators" last week.
The bureaucratic nationalist endeavours have led to suspension of preparation of the WB's index this year after data generated by a number of countries for this purpose earlier were allegedly found to be manipulated.
Under the circumstances, countries like Bangladesh might be venturing into preparation of a national index on business climate. One cannot say how far such an index would attain credibility and present comparative features.
However, indices have been at least useful for political consumption.That's why powerful elements push their own agenda to frame development indicators that proved to be "tokenism`".They can't narrate the stories of men and women living at the grassroots level.
Indices are still so powerful that they manage to eclipse actual necessities of citizens. "In a city like Dhaka what is more important than flyovers is if women and children can walk through the footpaths or travel by bus, or if people can get schooling proper or can access necessary healthcare services," a professor at the Catholic University of the USA, Adnan Morshed, told the same discussion.
Quality of education, for example, cannot be measured by a single test or any other yardstick.That doesn't mean either that quality cannot be understood. In fact, there are subjective observations of people of a particular area at a given time about any development in their lives and surroundings that cannot be captured by a global index.
At the same time, appeal of universal issues, like people's right to live, can in no way be denied in the name of defining the local perspective.
The world of development has been crammed with indices these days when most of them are losing, or have already lost, appeal and efficacy to help communities make further progress. As the pandemic has shattered the systems in place, people would need new standards to define their needs, development and issues in the coming days.