The Narendra Modi government recently said in Parliament that it doesn’t have data on the death of migrant workers during the lockdown imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic, and, so, is unable to pay compensation to the affected families. Never before has timely, credible data been more important, but this need woefully comes at a time when our statistical agencies are weakened by institutional decline and political interference. Our agencies are unable to provide data that can help policymakers who are struggling to arrest the sharp contraction of the economy, as revealed by the latest GDP estimates, even as the pandemic is far from being under control.
The data deficit at the heart of governance in India partly explains the government’s inability to respond to crises. While it is true that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) inherited a ‘deteriorating’ statistical system, instead of reforming the system, it chose to undermine the remaining foundations.
We do not have data on Covid-19 cases disaggregated by date, place, method of testing, contact history, co-morbidities and demographic, social and economic background that is needed for an informed debate on the current health crisis.
Likewise, information about the state of India’s economy before the pandemic and reliable estimates of reverse migration are essential for understanding the economic crisis.
There is no official estimate of consumption and employment for the period immediately before the pandemic, while conventional data collection exercises will probably remain suspended until the health crisis subsides. Further, the 2011 Census data on migrants was released in instalments after a long delay, which hampered attempts to predict the magnitude of reverse migration. And the Modi government has admitted that it has not been able to monitor reverse migration adequately.
The BJP has come a long way from demanding data to not having much of it when in government. This is intriguing because the BJP had attacked the UPA government for data delays. Its 2014 manifesto promised to set up “an institute of Big data and Analytics” and harness “real-time” and “big” data to address problems as diverse as agricultural distress and intelligence gathering. The party that promised “real-time” data, however, has failed to ensure timely release of data and even scrapped surveys.
A declining statistical system
While the decline of India’s once highly regarded statistical system has hastened on the Modi government’s watch, it is a longer-term phenomenon driven by the decline of institutional capacity to generate reliable information across government departments compounded by political interference. The effects are evident across the board in maps, censuses and sample surveys.
The revised political map of India released after the change of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status is a case in point. Apart from poor workmanship, the revised map betrays a lack of understanding of the political and administrative history of the region. The earlier editions showed better awareness of essential historical details related to administrative and cultural boundaries. Maps are the foundation of all modern government statistics. The quality of maps has not declined suddenly, though, and is not deficient just in the case of Jammu and Kashmir.
The 2011 Census data was released after enormous delays despite improvements in data processing technologies and lesser workload compared to the 2001 Census when the Registrar General had to provide inputs for delimitation amid changes in district borders and list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Moreover, the 2011 Census data has been released mostly in the form of unannotated Microsoft Excel tables, while most of the detailed descriptive reports have not yet been released.
Interfering with the Census data
The growing political interference in the Census can also be seen in the manner of release of religion data. The 2001 religion data was not released until after the 2004 Lok Sabha election that brought the UPA-I to power. Since the Registrar General was handling an unprecedented workload and the elections were preponed, it is not clear if the delay was politically motivated. However, after the release of the data, the BJP promptly published a compilation of articles to expose “monopolists of secularism” and express satisfaction with the fact that the increase in the population share of Muslims came to light “when a ‘Secular’ government was in the saddle”.
The 2011 Census was conducted by the UPA-II, which delayed the release of the religion-based data that would have been ready as early as April 2013 when the Primary Census Abstract was released “a year ahead of schedule”.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP claimed that the “Congress is ashamed to admit its failure to take the Muslims of India out of deep poverty, so it has taken the anti-national step of suppressing Census figures.” After coming to power the BJP did not care to promptly release the data, and belatedly released it in August 2015.
The growing delay in the release of Census data reflects the larger problem of the systemic erosion of the autonomy of institutions over time.
The National Sample Survey (NSS), too, has suffered under successive governments. The results of the 66th round (2009-10) of the NSS, a quinquennial round, contradicted the government’s self-assessment and the UPA “decided that the data must be wrong”. This was one of the reasons why another quinquennial round was conducted in less than two years (68th round/2011-12) triggering intense political mudslinging. Then, the Modi government delayed the release of employment data until after the 2019 Lok Sabha election, and later scrapped the consumer expenditure survey.
The audits of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) can help cross-check administrative statistics. However, there has been a marked decline in the number of audit reports prepared by the CAG and growing delays in their release in recent years. By circumscribing the Right to Information (RTI), the government is further restricting the scrutiny of administrative statistics. The gradual erosion of the independence of the judiciary and the media and uncritical use of data in academia and government has also limited the space for critical scrutiny of official statistics.
The Modi government’s statistical choices are myopic even from the perspective of the BJP’s self-interest. The party is obsessed with short-run electoral costs of greater public oversight. It, however, overlooks the benefits of robust statistical institutions that will help it in the long run to monitor and constrain successors and ensure continuity of policies after the loss of power.
In short, the continuing deterioration of our statistical institutions is a product of general institutional decline of the state and partisan subversion of institutions over a longer period. The BJP’s myopia has only accelerated the decline. While politics and statistics have always been intertwined, the current moment stands out due to the inability of statistical agencies to shield themselves from politics and make choices on the basis of their professional judgement. It is time the Modi government took lessons from its policy paralysis in the face of the pandemic and economic slowdown, and restored the autonomy of statistical and other institutions that provide inputs essential for empirically-informed public debate and policymaking.
The author teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is co-author of ‘Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics, Cambridge University Press’ (2020). Views are personal.
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