Data is the new oil... gone stale
If that does not succeed in diverting attention, it questions the veracity of the data, even if it was generated by its own agencies.
NEW DELHI: For a regime notorious for brazenness, the BJP-led Union government is remarkably touchy about what data emanating from its agencies says about its performance. If such data triggers criticism of its functioning, its first recourse is whataboutery. If that does not succeed in diverting attention, it questions the veracity of the data, even if it was generated by its own agencies. And if even that does not work, it proceeds to gag the source of the data.
This tendency is again apparent in the suspension of the director of the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), an autonomous agency under the Ministry of Health which provides consultancy and research services to the government in the conduct of crucial policy studies such as the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS). Prof KS James has been suspended while an investigation is being conducted into alleged irregularities at the institute. While no specific allegations against James have been made public, an unsigned note was circulated by the Health Ministry stating some of the charges have been found to be prima facie true.
What makes this development questionable is the fact that it comes in the context of government discomfiture over some inconvenient findings contained in NFHS-5, a survey for which IIPS provided services. The survey gave the lie to government claims on several of its pet schemes. It found for instance that more than 40% of households still have no access to clean cooking fuel, which punctures the claim that the NDA flagship scheme Ujjwala Yojana has been a roaring success. It also found that the claim of making all of India open defecation free is essentially hollow as at least 19 per cent of households still have no access to a toilet. Most seriously, it found that prevalence of anaemia has been increasing, not decreasing, since the previous edition of NFHS.
There have been several indications in the past few weeks that the government is not at ease with the data put out by its agencies. Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya was reported to have been particularly peeved about the anaemia findings. Economist Shamika Ravi, a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, kicked up a controversy by co-authoring a working paper questioning the sampling methodology followed in the National Sample Surveys. It argued that the sample design harboured a bias that produced higher estimates of the rural population, the number of working-age people and the Scheduled Caste population.
This is not the first time that the government has been at odds with its own data. Right at the outset of its first term in office, it dismissed the findings of the household expenditure survey. In 2019, as it prepared to go to elections, it withheld unemployment data when it found that joblessness had reached a 40-year high. It’s common for governments to exult over good news and bury the bad but this regime goes the extra yard to ensure that its critics have no data to puncture its narrative. The continuing delay in the decadal Census, which fell due in 2021, is a telling commentary on its dread of data, which is ironic given the Prime Minister’s love for digitalisation of the economy.
All this serves to illustrate the very nature of this regime. It cares little for data because it does not tailor its policies to ground realities; it prefers to tailor data to fit what it sees as its mandate. It does not see itself as a government voted to power to make policy but to rearrange the polity.