Data and its discontents

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on September 05, 2021

Title: Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government StatisticsAuthors: Ankush Agarwal and Vikas KumarPublisher: Cambridge University PressPrice: ₹889

Title: Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics Authors: Ankush Agarwal and Vikas Kumar Publisher: Cambridge University Press Price: ₹889

The quality of the statistics of a country is a measure of its goodness, say the authors

This is one of the best books to be published in a very long time. It deals with what the authors — the first teaches economics at IIT Delhi and the second at Azim Premji University — say is an under-researched area, namely, the link between statistics and statecraft.

The authors say these two have now become inseparable and provide very comprehensive and insightful analysis. The book is so rich in detail that it is hard to assimilate all of it in one reading. It is not, however, light reading.

And that’s another reason why it first stuns you and then forces you to re-examine all your perceptions and cherished beliefs. To use a cliche, it is an eye opener.

If we set aside India’s culture, as a composite geographic and political entity, India was invented two hundred years ago by the British. And, given how it has been governed since then, even after 1947, it was probably inevitable that first cartography and then statistics would become an important instrument of governance for all governments.

In post-Independence India an altogether New Democratic process began with the reorganisation of the States into linguistic entities in 1956. That process has been going on ever since. The latest event was the conversion of Jammu & Kashmir into a Union Territory two years ago when for the first time an implicit religious separation was used.

Why Nagaland

All hypotheses, in order to be thoroughly investigated, need a test case. The authors have chosen Nagaland.

Nagaland was created in 1963 by carving it out of Assam but not on a linguistic basis like the other new States created in 1956. The authors say that “…Nagaland has seen the most sustained and substantial errors in basic government statistics in the country.”

But they could have chosen any other State without doing much damage to their conclusions, which are that data has been ruthlessly used for a very long time by the State to achieve its ends.

The authors say that “government statistics, a key ingredient of public policy, do not receive sufficient attention in textbooks.” That is, no one cares about accuracy as long as it is “government data.” This has allowed governments to play ducks and drakes, not just in India but in all countries.

Warp in the weave

The authors rightly observe that the quality of the statistics of a country are a measure of its goodness. Contrariwise, by implication, bad countries have bad statistics. They also say “statistics are a site of political contestation insofar as what to count, how to count and how to use statistics”.

On a close reading of this book you can safely assert what the authors stop short of asserting, namely, that on a scale of 1-10, India would probably get 5. Basically, it collects the relevant data but does it badly.

I would, however, say that there isn’t always any mala fide on the part of the government. Sometimes it is simply impossible to collect all the data that economists want.

The Nagaland Numbers

Indeed, say the authors, even the actual area of Nagaland is what can be termed a secret! And if that is not bad enough, the authors clearly imply that most of Nagaland’s data has huge errors, including, in the 2001 Census, an overstatement of its population by 36 per cent. Its poverty ratio, it seems, was also understated.

Basically, it’s all designed to confuse and obfuscate. But a lot of it is not deliberate; it is just standard issue government incompetence.

There is no space in this review for going fully into either the details of the Nagaland experience or into the methodology, for which I am not fully competent. But two of the seven chapters that comprise the book should be read by anyone who is interested in such matters.

One of them is the very first chapter, called ‘State and Statistics’. The other, the very last one, is called ‘Data, Democracy and Development’.

In between are the five chapters that provide an extraordinary width and depth of evidence about what has happened in Nagaland. Those chapters would require a separate article or altogether, such is their richness.

But let me just give you a flavour of what they contain. They are utterly succulent. So briefly:

Chapter 2 is called ‘Nagaland and Numbers’. Here the authors highlight the “assorted instances of the misuse and misinterpretation of data in politics, policy making, sample surveys and academic research.”

Chapter 3 is called ‘Cartographic Mess’. This chapter reveals in mind-numbing detail the problems involved in map making. In Nagaland, they say, “we are faced with inherent cartographic indeterminacy rather than mere inaccuracy.” The Home Ministry should pay special heed to this chapter.

Chapter 4 is called ‘Demographic Somersault’. The authors say that Nagaland’s population was over reported and that demographic data for the State lacks internal consistency.

Chapter 5 is about the way censuses are conducted and how they go wrong. They say that both the over-counting in 2001 and the correction in 2011 were driven by politico-economic reasons, not to mention local demands for new districts and so on.

Chapter 6 is called ‘Flawed Surveys’ and, as its title suggests, is about errors made while collecting data. Mostly this happens because “surveys are irregular and samples are unrepresentative.”

Overall, the effect of these five chapters is quite devastating. One must hope that the BJP, which is very keen on the integration of the North East will take serious note of the points the authors make. The authors should be asked to make a presentation to the Prime Minister.

Published on September 05, 2021

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