Why are the BJP and Centre so afraid of data?

It has led to data drought and crackdown on those who bring crucial information to light

All in one week. Arundhati Roy faces prosecution in 2023 for statements she made in 2010! Raids at the residences of 46 journalists, editors, writers and professionals associated with the news portal Newsclick.in. The figurative act of “shooting the messenger” has taken on a frightening reality. I still can’t figure out why Siddique Kappan had to endure over two years in jail for reporting on the Hathras rape and murder. Those who are expressing themselves or bringing crucial information into the public domain by doing their jobs as journalists or writers are being stifled. This government is skittish about sharing information. Their modus operandi has been to create an information drought on all platforms — Parliament, policy think tanks, credible data sources and even their own ministries.

Let me begin by giving you an example from Parliament. In August, a Special Session was announced. The agenda for the session was shrouded in mystery, and only two working days before the commencement of the session was the agenda announced. This is a parliamentary democracy, not an army operation. In an army operation, one needs secrecy, surprise, and stealth. In a parliamentary democracy, one needs cooperation, collaboration, and sharing of views. Even in the articulation of the agenda, the inclusion of the phrase “not to be taken as exhaustive” cast a veil of opacity over the discourse. And true enough, an important bill was slipped in during the Special Session to make it seem Parliamentary procedure is not a chorus, but a selfish solo.

The devil is in (the lack) of data. The horrors of mid-2021 are etched in our collective memory. Where is the data on deaths caused by Covid-19? How many doctors died during the pandemic? The Union government might know, but they certainly aren’t telling us. It’s a trend. From the undocumented plight of migrant workers to unreported farmer deaths during the protests, to the alarming incidents of mob violence — there is now an extensive blank catalogue of unavailable data.

The Narendra Modi government has a chronic case of arithmophobia, the correct term for the fear of numbers. Evasion of data is not about simply “not knowing”, it is often about knowing but preferring not to tell. We are already running two years late for conducting the Census. While it is understandable that a force majeure event like the pandemic in 2021 didn’t make it feasible for a nationwide exercise to be conducted, there is no rationale for the persistent delays. Whatever happened to administrative feasibility when election rallies were nonchalantly held during the devastating second wave of Covid-19? Or when currency notes were made worthless overnight?

The Union government still relies on 2011 data to account for welfare eligibility, resulting in a significant chunk of the population being excluded from essential schemes. Over 15 crore people are cut off from a basic necessity, the Public Distribution System (PDS). Antiquated data, if I may stretch an analogy, is like calculating strike rates for a 50-over match based on a batsman’s performance in T20! It takes you nowhere. So, when we look at the World Economic Forum’s population projection of 141 crore, we see a disparity of approximately 20.7 crores between the population of 2011 and 2023. The situation gets grimmer when one realises that the approximately 80 crore people covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) form just 57 per cent of India’s population — well short of the 67 per cent, as mandated by the Act.

Behind these numbers are real people. Real stories. Like 50-something Nupur Hati from Hooghly district in Bengal, who clutches on to her laminated job card because she hasn’t received the MNREGA wages due to her. Or Manjul Sheikh from Karnataka, who has another story of heartbreak. The lack of data about citizens is not just an administrative crisis. It is now a humanitarian one. And all that we get from this government is obfuscation. This delay in the Census, combined with vague allusions to a certain “delimitation” exercise, particularly in light of the recently passed Women’s Reservation Bill, has only added to the mystery. We must not make welfare a privilege reserved for the statistically favoured.

Another important tool through which Parliament keeps the Union government in check is parliamentary questions. The Union government, in reply to countless questions, keeps admitting that it does not have any data available on multiple subjects — people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and its adverse impact on the economy, the number of journalists arrested while performing their duty; deaths of Right to Information (RTI) activists, among others. That’s why No Data Available (NDA) has become a worn-out joke.

A few weeks ago (September 28) was the International Day for Universal Access to Information. The day slipped by without even a fleeting whisper in the Indian political discourse. The times we live in.

[This article was also published in The Indian Express | Friday, October 13, 2023]