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regular-article-logo Friday, 24 May 2024

Data dilemma: Editorial on Lancet calling for greater transparency in data collection and sharing by Indian govt

A ‘digital’ census, which was supposed to take place in 2024, is yet to be undertaken. Significantly, the methodology, not just the paucity or the quality of data, poses challenges too

The Editorial Board Published 19.04.24, 08:12 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

In the digital age, data, arguably, is the new gold. Every sphere, from policy to politics, healthcare to technology, is increasingly dependent on data. The continued scarcity as well as the poor quality of official data in India is, therefore, becoming a matter of concern — domestically and abroad. In a recent editorial, The Lancet, a respected and premier medical journal, has called for greater transparency in data collection and data sharing by the Indian government to ensure correct analysis and effective implementation of policies. The apprehensions raised by the journal are hardly new or unexpected. For instance, the Centre’s persistent claim that only around half a million people died of Covid-19 during the pandemic has been challenged. Most estimates, The Lancet claims, peg the death toll at six to eight times the official figure; a May 2022 report by the World Health Organization suggested that as many as 4.7 million had succumbed to Covid-19-linked ailments. Better collation of and collaboration on data could have resolved these confusions. But data gaps and their resultant contestations are likely to continue in the near future. This is because the census exercise has not been conducted by the Narendra Modi government — the pandemic was cited as an excuse. A ‘digital’ census, which was supposed to take place in 2024, is yet to be undertaken. Significantly, the methodology, not just the paucity or the quality of data, poses challenges too. To cite one instance, in declaring that 248.2 million Indians had been lifted out of poverty in the last 10 years or so, the Niti Aayog abandoned the traditional method of a comprehensive headcount of individuals below a defined threshold of expenditure and relied instead on a multidimensional poverty index that assessed deprivation based on just 10 indicators.

These concerns with data have serious ramifications. Data fog or information of inferior quality is likely to impair the reach and the target groups of welfare policies. The lack of concern regarding this issue also reveals that data, despite its centrality to modern life, is yet to become a public good in the truest sense. The apathy of Indians towards data leaks or data privacy bears further proof of this. Moreover, the use and the weaponisation of data remain concentrated within the specialised realms of governance and industry. This is unfortunate since the quality and the public dissemination of data are integral to the fates of transparency and democracy.

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