Data is considered the most precious resource, and it appears that the Indian government does want to keep it under wraps. Crime Statistics by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) haven’t been released since 2016, the controversial Periodic Labour Force Survey was delayed and released after the elections (and also ruffled a lot of feathers), migration data from the 2011 Census was released this year, and data from the Socio-Economic Caste Census collected by the UPA government in 2012-13 is yet to be released.
This is not all. The Annual Observance Report of the Special Data Dissemination Standard for 2018 by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showed that India also did not meet multiple requirements in the release of economic and financial data as prescribed by the Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS) of the IMF. India delayed disseminating data in multiple categories for varying periods.
Himanshu, an associate professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at JNU, says that all governments are afraid of data that is uncomfortable, but in a democracy, elected governments also have to respect institutions whether they like it or not. This is why statistical institutions are kept independent, he adds.
“I don't think governments have ever tried to tamper with data, delay the release of data or control the institutions which are connected with data. That is where this government is different. We have the National Statistical Commission where members resigned because they were asked not to release the data, and that came out anyway,” he says.
Himanshu is referring to the Periodic Labour Force Data (PLFS), which was released by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) on May 31, the day the cabinet of the Narendra Modi government took oath. The report was only released after the elections were completed. National Statistics Commission acting chief PC Mohanan and his colleague J Meenakshi were unhappy over the non-publication of the job data that had been due for release in December last year and resigned over the same in January. The report, finally released in May, showed that unemployment is at a 45-year high.
Himanshu says the government is making sure that data that they are uncomfortable with isn’t released, or is released according to their convenience.
“I think the government is now using election cycles depending on when is the next election. Data is released after the elections are over. That, I feel, is something that is dangerous and affects the independence of independent statistical institutions, and this is not good for democracy. No democracy can function without independent data,” he says.
“Any data which is inconvenient can be used by people to question the functioning of the government,” he adds.
Following the resignation of PC Mohanan and J Meenakshi from the NSC, 108 economists wrote to the Indian government in March — a letter titled Economic Statistics in a Shambles. “...any statistics that cast an iota of doubt on the achievement of the government seem to get revised or suppressed on the basis of some questionable methodology,” the letter stated.
One of the letter’s signatories R Nagaraj, a professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, states that the simple reason the government is afraid to release the data is "political inconvenience".
“Data is politics in a democracy. It is a public good, which citizens can use to question the political and administrative authorities. Delays in publication or suppression of public data sets a bad precedent in a democratic society. A government's credibility gets tarnished by doing so,” he says.
Data journalist Rukmini S says that her default stance while investigating errors by the government is to assume incompetence rather than malice.
“This is what I had first assumed with the delayed NSSO jobs data as well. However, when members of the NSC spoke out after resigning about the report being ready, and then the government actually having the nerve to publish it the day after re-election, it became clear they were acting in bad faith,” she says.
Another example that the delays are intentional, she adds, is the government attributing delayed NCRB statistics to states like West Bengal not replying in time as if no other government has had to deal with states in the past.
The kind of precedent the government sets by delaying such data, Himanshu says, is that it will be used by the next government. “Political parties are very smart learners and learn quickly,” he says. Information soon will become only one-way and there won’t be a way to control it, he adds.
Rukmini also says that if the media faithfully report the statistics whenever the government deigns to release them, the government will keep doing this. “If reporters covering the home ministry asked at every briefing why we haven't had new crime statistics for over 2 years, I am sure the government would have to do something,” she says.