ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

India, Once a Trailblazer in Data Infrastructure, Is Squandering Its Legacy

Despite a statistical architecture that set us up as world leaders, data is under threat today.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
story-hero-img
i
Aa
Aa
Small
Aa
Medium
Aa
Large

It can be a bit hard to picture it right now, but 75 years ago, India was a shining beacon in the world of data. As India emerged from the shadow of colonialism, statistics were an essential part of its vision to be more audaciously ambitious than it had any right to be.

The man in whose honour Statistics Day is celebrated on 29 June, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, did just that. In the early decades of independent India, an impoverished country led the world in statistical innovation. Today, the skill is there, and the ambition is there, too. But without a genuine commitment to democracy, India is losing its way.

Snapshot
  • It can be a bit hard to picture it right now, but 75 years ago, India was a shining beacon in the world of data.

  • There is essential data that is simply not being collected, or, in some cases, is being collected so poorly that it leads to problematic conclusions. One example is data on death from infectious diseases.

  • There are problems with delayed data, as in the case of the 2021 Census, intentionally delayed data, as in the case of 2017-18 unemployment numbers, and problematic changes in methodology, as was the case with the new GDP series.

  • Then there is active suppression of data and the lack of public pressure to prevent this from happening. In 2019, the Modi government set a damaging precedent by refusing to release the CES findings of the National Statistical Office in 2017-18.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

How Data Is Ignored, Delayed, or 'Intentionally' Delayed 

First is the issue of essential data that is simply not being collected, or, in some cases, is being collected so poorly that it leads to problematic conclusions. One of the most egregious examples of this is data on death from infectious diseases. The issue of undercounting deaths from disease might seem like a very 2022 problem, but the truth is that India’s surveillance system for disease and death is simply not good enough yet. Even before the pandemic, India routinely undercounted deaths from diseases, for reasons ranging from lack of access to healthcare in rural areas, problems with misdiagnoses, and lack of uniform access to laboratory facilities. In 2019, India’s official estimate of deaths from malaria was 77 for the whole country. For the same year, modelled estimates from the Global Burden of Disease project placed the number of deaths from malaria at over 33,000.

The undercount factor there – over 400 times – should put the Indian government’s outrage over the World Health Organization’s estimate that India underestimated COVID-19 deaths by 10 times, in some perspective.

Then, there are problems with delayed data, as in the case of the 2021 Census, intentionally delayed data, as in the case of 2017-18 unemployment numbers, and problematic changes in methodology, as was the case with the new GDP series – all issues that I chronicle in my book ‘Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India’ (Westland Publishers).

Actively Suppresing Numbers

Finally comes the issue that we see rarely but which is far more worrying than legacy issues in the statistical system alone – active suppression of data and the lack of public pressure to prevent this from happening. In 2019, the Modi government set a damaging precedent by simply refusing to release the Consumption Expenditure Survey (CES) conducted by the National Statistical Office in 2017-18, numbers that form the basis of our understanding of poverty.

The leaked report showed the first decline in real income in decades and painted a poor picture of Modi’s handling of the economy in his first term. A new round of the CES has finally been announced for July this year, but given the backdrop of why the last CES was suppressed, recent triumphalism around poverty reduction that relies on problematic data, and a change in the methodology, the results will have to be studied with care.

There are certainly silver linings here. The digitisation of official data has progressed by leaps and bounds. Functioning state-level portals for the Civil Registration System now allow us to see every month what is going on with mortality in India (it’s a separate matter that the portals are closed to the public). There has been an explosion in the collection and availability of administrative data (data on the functioning of schemes), which innovative journalists and researchers have put to use to tell important stories about India.

Within parts of the government, people with a true commitment to open data are working on throwing open more large datasets, and, best of all, are open to the criticism that might come with scrutiny.

The release of a mammoth geo-tagged dataset of key facilities across roughly one million rural habitations under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana by the Ministry of Rural Development was a notable leap forward in this direction.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Refusal to Take Criticism Can Undo Our Legacy

But without a genuine democratic commitment to collecting and releasing data irrespective of its content and the criticism that might come, technocrats cannot save us. In 2020, I used administrative data from the National Health Mission’s Health Management Information System to confirm the lockdown-related disruption in access to routine healthcare that doctors across the country had been raising alarm bells over. The data was then taken offline. In 2021, the data reappeared, updated, and was put on a shiny new website. I used it to confirm what other reporting was showing – a spike in deaths in the summer of 2021 from “fever” and “unknown causes”.

After my reporting and a subsequent academic paper, the NHM-HMIS has not been updated since May 2021, and no one in the rest of the media or in positions of power seems to have a problem with it.

Seventy-five years ago, Mahalanobis’ audacious vision and commitment to statistics as a tool to both plan and eradicate poverty made India a model for the world to look up to. This enduring legacy, alongside dedicated civil society workers who keep the government accountable on the ground, technologists with the ability to solve virtually any problem, and many within governments with a commitment to good data, has brought us this far. But a refusal to engage with criticism and a relentless triumphalism could undo it all.

(Rukmini S is an independent data journalist based in Chennai, and author of the book ‘Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India’. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(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.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More
×
×