[lg policy] Data delays are denying India access to good policy

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Feb 10 10:52:30 EST 2018

 Data delays are denying India access to good policy 10 February 2018

Authors: Ankush Agrawal, IIT Delhi, and Vikas Kumar, Azim Premji University

The growing clamour in India for evidence-based and targeted policymaking
has not been matched by improvements in the quality of data. Whatever
attention quality receives is restricted to data accuracy
By contrast, even though the National Statistical Commission
<http://www.mospi.gov.in/report-dr-rangarajan-commission> flagged the
timely release of data as a major issue more than a decade and a half ago,
timeliness as a dimension of data quality has still not received much
attention from the government, academia or the media.

[image: A man walks past a screen displaying news of markets update inside
the Bombay Stock Exchange building in Mumbai, India, 6 February 2018
(Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui).]

In recent times, India has seen growing delays in the release of major
databases despite the ‘technocratisation’ of policymaking, public
professions of faith in evidence-based policymaking, the introduction of
advanced data processing technologies and growing fascination with big and
real-time data. Some of these developments were reflected in the campaign
and manifesto
of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2014 parliamentary elections
that engaged with government statistics
The Party’s campaign addressed the delays in releasing 2011 census data on
religion, and its manifesto promised to use ‘technology to disseminate
real-time data’ and to set up ‘an institute of big data and analytics for
studying the impact of big data across sectors for predictive science’.

After coming to power, the BJP has not followed through, though. It has not
yet released the full set of 2011 census data: so far only one of the
migration tables has been released, and the complete general population
table reports have not been published, which deprives policymakers of
valuable qualitative information. Census tables on language await
publication. The BJP government has also failed to release other reports
including the *Report of the High-level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health
and Educational Status of the Tribals of India*
the complete findings of the *Rapid Survey of Children*
<http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33369710> or the *Study on Unaccounted
Incomes in India*

Despite dramatic improvements in data processing technologies that should
have drastically reduced the time involved, time between collection and
release of religion and language data has *increased* since 1970.

The government released language tables from the 1961 census in 1964. This
was when it published information about all languages spoken in the
country, rather than just languages with more than 10,000 speakers, so the
data released were more rather than less complex. By contrast, it released
language tables of later censuses five to six years after enumeration. It
has still not released 2011 language tables after seven years. Further
delays would mean that these data will not be available until after the
preparations for the 2021 census begin in 2019. Similar observations hold
good for religion data.

In case of religion, it is possible to identify the date by which the
census data might have been processed because the census questionnaire
links the identification of caste of a person to her/his religious
affiliation. This means that the caste and religion data have to be sorted
together and can be released around the same time.

Indeed, until 1981, the data on scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and
religion were released in the same year or within a year of each other.
This near-concurrent release has not continued. Caste and tribe data from
the 2011 census were available on 30 April 2013, when the primary census
abstract was released. Many hoped that other tables would be released
sooner than expected because the abstract was released
<http://pib.nic.in/PressReleseDetail.aspx?PRID=95372> ‘a year ahead of
schedule’. Further, as per the National Statistical Commission’s
recommendations the religion and language tables of the 2011 census should
have been released by March 2014.

In 2004, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government failed to
release the 2001 religion data. The Indian National Congress-led United
Progressive Alliance government, which took credit for institutionalising
the right to information, failed to release the 2011 religion data in 2014.
It is noteworthy that both 2004 and 2014 were election years. Some of the
key tables based on the 2011 census data on religion were finally released
in August 2015 — 28 months after the primary census abstract’s release and
15 months after the 2014 elections.

The delayed release of data reflects the unwillingness of India’s
statistical system to face public scrutiny. The absence of
cross-examination affects the quality of statistics, which in turn pushes
the system into a vicious cycle of deteriorating data quality and
diminishing trust in the system. Moreover, delayed releases make data
obsolete for policymakers.

The growing delays in the release of government statistics are also an
indicator of the government’s interference
with India’s statistical machinery. If one focusses specifically on
religion and language data from the census, the growing delays can be read
as symptoms of the deepening communal crisis. The delays have been growing
since 1981 — the period that witnessed the communalisation of Indian
politics. Under these circumstances, the re-insulation of the statistical
system from governmental and political interference should be an urgent

*Ankush Agrawal teaches economics at IIT Delhi.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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