New Delhi: Sometimes it isn’t just that one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing. In the context of India’s development, the hand might not even know what its own fingers are doing.

The country’s halting progress towards the Millennium Development Goals is, in part, a reflection of a deep split between the Union and state governments—a split embodied in the lack of useful data to monitor progress.

The goals lay out targets in poverty reduction, and improved access to water, education, health and sanitation.

Low interest: A file picture of chief statistician Pronab Sen. He says not a single state has sought a copy of the progress report. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

The Indian report was built from two types of data—one culled from a combination of state records and national surveys, and another exclusively from state records. “In the first sort, state data invariably contradicts national data," Sen said. “The classic case is data on the public distribution system. We spent a couple of months doing nothing but answering questions on that."

Also Read

India way off target on some Millennium Development Goals

How much of £825 mn aid will reach children?

‘We have nicknamed MDGs the minimum development goals’

UN to miss millennium goals on maternal mortality, child hunger

The second sort of data, sourced purely from states, is often inaccurate as well. Data from national records, such as the National Sample Survey, are more reliable, but these surveys are conducted every five-seven years. “Those intervals are so large that they are completely useless for tracking purposes," Sen argued.

Sen found state approaches to the goals problematic. “When our progress report was published, we got calls from almost every ministry, asking for copies," he said. “But we didn’t get a single letter from any state government."

The goals, experts say, are being seen as a Union government exercise, even though many focus areas lie within the states’ domain. “Part of the problem is that the goals were not linearly translated to the state level," said Raj Gautam Mitra, an advisor at the UN children’s fund.

In some cases, that translation happened fortuitously. N. Latha, joint director of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Tamil Nadu, points out her project’s aim—universal primary education—is the same as that of the millennium goals.

“Here that has already been achieved. There is a primary school within a distance of one kilometre of every child," Latha says. “As for the data discrepancies, I don’t think that is true of Tamil Nadu, although it may well be true of other states."

In Karnataka, an official, who requested anonymity, cited the pulls and pressures in states that decide priority areas. What the Centre expects may not happen, he said.

The discussion in New Delhi, chaired by the UN and intended to resolve this troubling gap, proposed the use of local monitoring instead. This will proceed in three states, in parallel with the review process of the 11th Plan.

“In Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, we’ll use civil society to monitor communities," said Minar Pimple, deputy director, Asia, of the UN millennium campaign. “It’s a big step, and the Indian delegation will announce it at the UN meeting in New York later this month."

In principle, Mitra welcomed local monitoring, but warned against yet another redundant data collection campaign. “We don’t need more collection efforts operating in parallel with each other," he said. “What we really need is data that can be acted upon."

Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore contributed to this story.