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From Census to NFHS, the Void in India's National Data Is Now Bigger Than Ever

"All developed countries have one thing in common. They have a robust data infrastructure built into the system."

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"The 2021 census was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for the first time in 150 years, a whole decade has gone by with no official comprehensive data on India or its people," The Lancet noted in a recent editorial.

"A promise that the next census will be an electronic survey carried out in 2024 is yet to be fulfilled," the medical journal added.

But the void in India's national data is not limited to the Census of India.

There are other major data sources like the National Family and Health Survey-6 (NFHS-6) and the All-India Household Consumption Expenditure Survey, that have come under the scanner due to delays, data quality issues, and lack of transparency in the past few years with next to no explanation for the setbacks.

The Lancet editorial, published in April (and coinciding with the commencement of India's 2024 Lok Sabha elections) made the case that a lack of data transparency in India is not only hurting the people of the country but also 'impoverishing' democratic choices.

How deep does the problem run? As India votes to elect its next Union government, FIT speaks to experts about what the current state of government data in India says about the health of the nation.

From Census to NFHS, the Void in India's National Data Is Now Bigger Than Ever

  1. 1. Whose Data Is It Anyway?

    According to experts, diminishing transparency around major sources of national data has made it especially difficult to ensure quality of data and accountability.

    For instance, let's rewind to 28 July 2023.

    A suspension order was passed against KS James, the then-director of the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) – the body responsible for providing technical guidance to the health ministry for the NFHS –because the Union Health Ministry was reportedly, "not happy with certain data sets" in the surveys being conducted for NFHS-6.

    The suspension was only revoked in August, after James tendered his resignation.

    Speaking to FIT, James, who now works as a visiting faculty at Tulane University in Louisiana, United States, refused to comment on the circumstances that led to his exit from the IIPS.

    However, speaking specifically about NFHS-6, he says that regardless of when it might come out, the seeds of scepticism about the quality of one of the most extensive and trusted data sources in India have already sprouted.

    "Even if it is quality data, people already have their suspicions about its credibility because the credibility of data at large in India is on a decline, and our system has done nothing to reinstate confidence in them."
    KS James, former IIPS director

    James goes on to say, "It (NFHS data) was trusted because it was conducted independently, but the credibility of it is now under serious question."

    He explains, "It was earlier a part of the international Demographic and Health Survey System (DHS) programme. It was one of the 96 countries that were being supported by USAID who was helping maintain the quality of the data."

    "NFHS-6 onwards, it became the sole undertaking of the government of India. They will no longer have any technical assistance or any one checking the quality of the data. So naturally, it is up to the government to decide how to conduct the surveys, what should be released, etc."
    K S James, Former Director, IIPS

    FIT has reached out to the director and registrar of IIPS with a detailed questionnaire for comments on this, and will update this report when we hear back.

    "Data remains a matter of dispute now," Jawhar Sircar, a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha and a retired IAS officer, tells FIT.

    Sircar's point is illustrated in the alleged stonewalling of data on COVID-19-related deaths during the pandemic.

    The central government had, at the time, pushed back against the World Health Organization (WHO) after the latter said that the former was grossly underreporting the actual number of COVID-related deaths in the country.

    Experts had told FIT that even as the Indian government criticised independent studies, it didn't share its own official data on actual deaths.

    Apart from the alleged dodgy data on COVID-related deaths and the delay in the census, The Lancet editorial points out that even the Sample Registration System (SRS) data for 2021 (which provides estimates of birth and death rates) has not been released yet.

    The central government responded to the Lancet editorial by defending itself and calling India's registration system "robust," but did not comment on the questions raised about the delay, according to a report by The Times of India.

    Futhermore, when data is released, Sircar accuses the central government of "putting out cherry-picked data that suits them without releasing the full report."

    For instance, in September last year, the National Statistical Office was accused of using selective data to calculate India's GDP growth rate in the first quarter of 2023, reigniting a debate about the credibility of India's GDP data.

    "It's like a police station refusing to register FIRs and saying that their area is crime-free. India is going down the China route, where the official data put out by the country cannot be trusted."
    Jawhar Sircar, former IAS Officer
    Expand
  2. 2. Why Is All This Data Important?

    Now, why does all of this data matter so much?

    Why does it matter so much that the Census of India has not been held in 11 years, or that key questions on anaemia and disability were dropped from NFHS-6 without any explanation?

    NFHS data is often used to understand simple measurements like vaccination rate, fertility rate, nutrition uptake, and pre-and post-natal healthcare.

    "When you come to a state, district, sub-district level, policymakers and planners in India rely so heavily on these data sources. Because India's statistics collection system otherwise is not that strong, we don't have any other source of disaggregated data at the lower level," James says.

    "It is also used to assess if the schemes and programmes launched are showing results on the ground."
    KS James, former IIPS director

    In the meantime, policymakers and planners working on the ground are left in the dark and have to rely on census data from 2011 and NFHS data from 2021 which may not be accurate anymore.

    "A lot of policies in the country now rely on outdated, decades old data. So, you're not accounting for the current status of the people for whom you're designing the policies based on this data," Varna Sri Ram, global development researcher and former lead researcher at Oxfam India, tells FIT

    Although there hasn't been any official update on it so far this year, in December 2023, a senior government official told The Hindu that the deadline to freeze the administrative boundaries for the decennial census has been extended to June 2024.

    This means the census-collecting exercise itself is not likely to begin before October 2024.

    FIT has reached out to the Office of The Registrar General and census commissioner with a detailed questionnaire for comments on the delays. This report will be updated if we hear back.

    Expand
  3. 3. With Great Data Comes Great Responsibility

    "Something that all developed countries have in common is that they have a strong data infrastructure built into the system that routinely generates administrative data. You cannot claim to be a developed country without a strong data system – in the form of census, registrations, and surveys," says KS James.

    "If you don't have a strong infrastructure for data, you invariably also don't have a standard framework to govern how data is collected, retained, accessed, and protected."
    Varna Sri Ram, global development researcher

    Experts underscore that a major reason why trust in India's data is slipping is because of the lack of a framework for accountability.

    To this, Sircar says, "Data belongs to everyone. And we have to be open to cross-examination and peer review."

    "You have to subject yourself to a neutral wider body, and in the case of a nation, the neutral wider body is a specialised form of international supervision. Complying with an international standard of measurement doesn't enslave you, it rather makes your data more credible."
    Jawhar Sircar, former IAS officer

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Whose Data Is It Anyway?

According to experts, diminishing transparency around major sources of national data has made it especially difficult to ensure quality of data and accountability.

For instance, let's rewind to 28 July 2023.

A suspension order was passed against KS James, the then-director of the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) – the body responsible for providing technical guidance to the health ministry for the NFHS –because the Union Health Ministry was reportedly, "not happy with certain data sets" in the surveys being conducted for NFHS-6.

The suspension was only revoked in August, after James tendered his resignation.

Speaking to FIT, James, who now works as a visiting faculty at Tulane University in Louisiana, United States, refused to comment on the circumstances that led to his exit from the IIPS.

However, speaking specifically about NFHS-6, he says that regardless of when it might come out, the seeds of scepticism about the quality of one of the most extensive and trusted data sources in India have already sprouted.

"Even if it is quality data, people already have their suspicions about its credibility because the credibility of data at large in India is on a decline, and our system has done nothing to reinstate confidence in them."
KS James, former IIPS director

James goes on to say, "It (NFHS data) was trusted because it was conducted independently, but the credibility of it is now under serious question."

He explains, "It was earlier a part of the international Demographic and Health Survey System (DHS) programme. It was one of the 96 countries that were being supported by USAID who was helping maintain the quality of the data."

"NFHS-6 onwards, it became the sole undertaking of the government of India. They will no longer have any technical assistance or any one checking the quality of the data. So naturally, it is up to the government to decide how to conduct the surveys, what should be released, etc."
K S James, Former Director, IIPS

FIT has reached out to the director and registrar of IIPS with a detailed questionnaire for comments on this, and will update this report when we hear back.

"Data remains a matter of dispute now," Jawhar Sircar, a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha and a retired IAS officer, tells FIT.

Sircar's point is illustrated in the alleged stonewalling of data on COVID-19-related deaths during the pandemic.

The central government had, at the time, pushed back against the World Health Organization (WHO) after the latter said that the former was grossly underreporting the actual number of COVID-related deaths in the country.

Experts had told FIT that even as the Indian government criticised independent studies, it didn't share its own official data on actual deaths.

Apart from the alleged dodgy data on COVID-related deaths and the delay in the census, The Lancet editorial points out that even the Sample Registration System (SRS) data for 2021 (which provides estimates of birth and death rates) has not been released yet.

The central government responded to the Lancet editorial by defending itself and calling India's registration system "robust," but did not comment on the questions raised about the delay, according to a report by The Times of India.

Futhermore, when data is released, Sircar accuses the central government of "putting out cherry-picked data that suits them without releasing the full report."

For instance, in September last year, the National Statistical Office was accused of using selective data to calculate India's GDP growth rate in the first quarter of 2023, reigniting a debate about the credibility of India's GDP data.

"It's like a police station refusing to register FIRs and saying that their area is crime-free. India is going down the China route, where the official data put out by the country cannot be trusted."
Jawhar Sircar, former IAS Officer
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Why Is All This Data Important?

Now, why does all of this data matter so much?

Why does it matter so much that the Census of India has not been held in 11 years, or that key questions on anaemia and disability were dropped from NFHS-6 without any explanation?

NFHS data is often used to understand simple measurements like vaccination rate, fertility rate, nutrition uptake, and pre-and post-natal healthcare.

"When you come to a state, district, sub-district level, policymakers and planners in India rely so heavily on these data sources. Because India's statistics collection system otherwise is not that strong, we don't have any other source of disaggregated data at the lower level," James says.

"It is also used to assess if the schemes and programmes launched are showing results on the ground."
KS James, former IIPS director

In the meantime, policymakers and planners working on the ground are left in the dark and have to rely on census data from 2011 and NFHS data from 2021 which may not be accurate anymore.

"A lot of policies in the country now rely on outdated, decades old data. So, you're not accounting for the current status of the people for whom you're designing the policies based on this data," Varna Sri Ram, global development researcher and former lead researcher at Oxfam India, tells FIT

Although there hasn't been any official update on it so far this year, in December 2023, a senior government official told The Hindu that the deadline to freeze the administrative boundaries for the decennial census has been extended to June 2024.

This means the census-collecting exercise itself is not likely to begin before October 2024.

FIT has reached out to the Office of The Registrar General and census commissioner with a detailed questionnaire for comments on the delays. This report will be updated if we hear back.

0

With Great Data Comes Great Responsibility

"Something that all developed countries have in common is that they have a strong data infrastructure built into the system that routinely generates administrative data. You cannot claim to be a developed country without a strong data system – in the form of census, registrations, and surveys," says KS James.

"If you don't have a strong infrastructure for data, you invariably also don't have a standard framework to govern how data is collected, retained, accessed, and protected."
Varna Sri Ram, global development researcher

Experts underscore that a major reason why trust in India's data is slipping is because of the lack of a framework for accountability.

To this, Sircar says, "Data belongs to everyone. And we have to be open to cross-examination and peer review."

"You have to subject yourself to a neutral wider body, and in the case of a nation, the neutral wider body is a specialised form of international supervision. Complying with an international standard of measurement doesn't enslave you, it rather makes your data more credible."
Jawhar Sircar, former IAS officer

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Census   Data collection   NFHS Data 

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