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Photo: Vipin Kumar/Mint
Photo: Vipin Kumar/Mint

Why governments are afraid of statistical data

Released with much fanfare, the Socio-Economic Caste Census is fast turning into a political battleground

Released with much fanfare, the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) is fast turning into a political battleground. The SECC, which was meant to be a database for targeting and prioritizing beneficiaries of various government programmes, also includes a caste census. While the caste census—a response to the commitment by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to Parliament—was conducted along with the socio-economic survey, the two were separated immediately after data was collected. Unlike the socio-economic census which was to be verified by the public in village council meetings, the caste census was meant to be confidential until the government took a view on it.

Unfortunately, the political overtones and the fight over caste data have made an otherwise excellent data source controversial. Not only has the focus shifted to caste census, it has also meant that the issues raised by the SECC regarding beneficiary identification but also on the level of deprivation in rural and urban India remain ignored. Under political pressure, the government has appointed a committee under NITI Aayog chairperson Arvind Panagariya to analyze the caste data, but has not yet taken a view on what to do with the other important part of the SECC database which relates to beneficiary identification. Surprisingly, the government has also not taken a view on the Abhijit Sen Committee report which analysed the preliminary findings from the rural part of SECC and recommended ways of using the data for rural development programmes.

While the government may take a view on this sooner or later, the fact that some states are already using the data shows its usefulness. However, the bigger issue is not what the government does with the SECC but its interference in dealing with official statistics.

The absence of any thinking on what to do with the caste data until provoked by the opposition parties in Bihar and elsewhere implies that the issue may have been buried forever had it not been raised by these caste-based political parties. While this may have forced the government to act, it also raises obvious questions of independence of statistical data and the politics surrounding these important indicators of the society and economy.

This is not an isolated example. The approach of the government with regard to the data from the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) is another example of political interference in the release of crucial data on the state of malnutrition in the country. The last credible information on the status of malnutrition in the country has been from the regularly conducted National Family Health Survey (NFHS) round 3, the reference period of which was 2005-06. The NFHS which has been conducted usually at five-yearly intervals should have been conducted five years later in 2010, but has not been conducted so far. Part of the reason was the reluctance by the previous UPA government. According to the latest information, it is currently being canvassed but the delay means there is no comparable data for the last 10 years.

Meanwhile, the government conducted the RSOC in 2013-14, results of which were released with much fanfare in October. But since then, the government has stonewalled every effort to get state-wise reports, until The Economist released it on its website. Even after this, the government has reportedly set up a committee to look at the issue of the release of RSOC reports by states.

According to The Economist, the reason for the reluctance is some uncomfortable truths regarding the performance of Gujarat. The RSOC data and report on The Economist website shows Gujarat is one of the states which has seen low improvements in malnutrition indicators of children. Given the high rates of growth of GDP in Gujarat during 2005-13, the data do raise questions on the priorities of the state government on crucial social indicators. Its performance on ending open defecation—which the present government has announced as one of its priorities—is also worse than other states. States such as West Bengal and Maharashtra have done much better not only on child malnutrition but also on reducing open defecation.

The issue is not the state of affairs in Gujarat but government’s approach in hiding the data. While hiding this report has not changed the record of Gujarat government on food security or sanitation since most of this information is anyway available through direct and indirect sources, it does raise questions on the interference of the government in treating statistical data with the independence that they deserve.

For the record, Gujarat has highest leakages in public distribution system under the National Sample Survey data for 2011-12 and is also the state which has seen the situation worsen as against most states showing improvements since 2004-05. Similarly, the data on open defecation from Census house-listing data confirm the RSOC trend with low reduction in open defecation compared with other states.

Similar questions have been raised on the release of religion data from the Census 2011. The delay in release of religion figures is not only bad for research on relative performance of various religious groups, but by linking it with political ideologies of the ruling dispensation also raises question marks on the credibility of these statistics. The non-transparent nature of statistical data dissemination has already had its first casualty in the form of the GDP data, on which seeds of doubt remain.

However, this is not just a problem of this government; the UPA was as much complicit in maintaining silence over the SECC and delaying the NFHS. The problem is not related to any one particular government, but governments in general, where inconvenient truths or uncomfortable data are ignored rather than used for better and informed policy interventions.

Fortunately, our statistical system built over years has been quite robust and immune to any political interference. However, attempts to give it political colour may be harmful and detrimental to the credibility of the data as well as the statistical system.

It is high time that the National Statistical Commission took a view on statistics collected by statistical agencies but also routine registry data collected by state governments and various ministries. This is not just a matter of academic interest but also concerns the credibility of policy making and its reliance on evidence-based analysis.

In the long run, the independence and credibility of statistical systems are as much a part of governance as the process of policy making.

The author is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.

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