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Data Suppression UPSC NOTE

 


Past instances of data suppression

  • There have been instances in the past when the axe came down on some periodic publications of India’s national data agencies. 

  • Thus, the Consumer Expenditure Survey for 2017-18 conducted by the National Sample Survey Office was shelved. 

  • The official reason given was that it was methodologically flawed.

  • It has been suggested based on leaked information, that the final report was suppressed as it showed a decline in aggregate consumption.

  • At the time, leading commentators argued that this would be an anomaly in a growing economy, implying that there was good reason to have withheld the publication of the report. 

  • The argument is flawed, though, for a decline in total consumption can occur even in a growing economy when the income distribution shifts towards the rich.

  • Then, there was the Periodic Labour Force Survey for 2017-18, which was ready for release in early 2019 but was published only after the parliamentary elections held that May. 

  • It is believed that the government delayed the release as the report showed unemployment to be at a 45-year high in 2017-18. 

  • The recorded rise in unemployment is not surprising as growth of production in the non-agricultural private sector slowed considerably following the demonetisation.

Specific findings from NFHS-5

  • The media report has pointed to two findings in National Family Health Survey NFHS-5 that may have caused discomfiture to the government. 

  • The first is that the level of anaemia has risen across all sections of the population, quite alarmingly among children.

  • The levels recorded are indeed disturbing, with over half of India’s women in the age group 15-49 years reportedly anaemic. 

  • This does not sit well with the idea of an economy poised to be the third largest in the world in a matter of years, which the government takes credit for.

  • But is the finding itself implausible? The survey for NFHS-5 was conducted over 2019-21. 

  • There was a marked increase in food-price inflation during this period.

  • While it may have declined since, it stayed high by historical standards for the next 24 months.

  • Anaemia is partly related to food intake. 

  • It is possible that the higher price of food during the period of the survey contributed to anemia rise. 

  • In addition to the higher inflation, income had contracted during 2020-21 due to COVID-19.

  • A second finding reported in NFHS-5 shows that India has some way to go before it can be declared ‘open defecation free’ with any confidence. 

  • While NFHS-5 shows a substantial rise in the percentage of households using an “improved sanitation facility” since 2015-16, the figure falls short of 100% by about a fifth. 

  • Again, is this implausible? The figures for open defecation reported for 2005-06, 2015-16 and 2019-21 are 55%, 39% and 19%, respectively.

  • Compared to the reduction during the first period that achieved in the second one is actually quite impressive. 

  • Indeed, given the magnitude of the backlog in 2015-16 and that ending open defecation requires behavioural change among the population, it is not obvious that a superior outcome could have been achieved, whatever may have been the government’s aspiration.

  • Perhaps it is to flag that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has not failed.

  • After all, that when reporting the percentage of households using an improved sanitation facility the NFHS-5 report adds the warning: “This indicator does not denote access to toilet facility.” Such an entry is absent in earlier reports.

Impact of suppression

  • Surveillance of the nation’s data agencies would have damaging consequences. 

  • First, it introduces an incentive to not reveal outcomes that are likely to be frowned upon by the government of the day. This can jeopardise public policy interventions. 

  • Imagine there is an ongoing epidemic. If deaths are deliberately under-reported it could cause complacency in the population, encouraging a risky behaviour that spreads contagion.

  • Then there is the feature that elections are the means by which the nation chooses the political party they entrust with governance. 

  • For the exercise to be credible, citizens must have access to accurate and timely data. 

  • Now, national data agencies left to function without fear or favour become vital to a democracy.

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Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam: Data Suppression UPSC NOTE
Data Suppression UPSC NOTE
Learnerz IAS | Concept oriented UPSC Classes in Malayalam
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