“The misuse of data is a bigger problem than the manipulation”


If you like to think of yourself as the middle class and want to maintain the illusion, don’t read “Whole Numbers and Half-Truths: What the Data Can’t Tell Us About Modern India.” Written as a ‘Toolkit for India’ by data journalism pioneer Rukmini Shrinivasan, it shatters the country’s warm notions about itself through cold official statistics on everything from love to food and from marriage to elections. In an interview, the freelance journalist, who has been examining the country through numbers since 2010, informs Sharmila Ganesan Ram of the dangers of rejection, misreading and misuse of data.
Can you share some beloved stories about India that counters data?
People like to believe that caste doesn’t matter to voters because they say they vote for jobs and growth, but at the same time 45% of voters want an MP who belongs to them. caste. Many fairly wealthy people like to think they are middle class, but anyone in urban India who spends more than Rs 8,500 would be in the richest 5% in the country. Muslims are believed to have high fertility rates, but Muslim women in the southern states have lower fertility than Hindus in the Ganges belt states. Younger people often have more socially conservative views than older people. Marriage is still almost entirely within caste and arranged in India.
How poor is India’s large middle class today?
There is nothing rich Indians love more than thinking they are middle class. The real environment of the country is fundamentally poor. In 2011-2012, if India were divided into five equally sized classes in terms of income, the average 20% of Indian households would earn between 55,000 and 88,800 rupees per year. Only 40 percent of people in the first two classes had running water and only 15 percent even had three hours of water a day. Just over half had flush toilets and only half had eighteen hours of electricity per day – a scenario far removed from what we imagine middle class life. Even as recently as 2017-2018, we know from government-suppressed data that the very center of urban India was spending between Rs 2,700 and Rs 3,600 per month. As I suggest in the book, we need our own vocabulary and our own classification for the Indian middle class.
What were some of the biggest stories Indian media missed or downplayed despite the numbers?
Indian media is guilty of both overestimating and underestimating the story of India’s growth. has been missed for a while. Likewise, not enough has been said about the sharp reductions in poverty during the second half of the 2000s and the early 2010s. Over the past two years, data on missing Covid deaths in India has been reported. was pretty clear, but large sections of the Indian media downplayed this story.
There is growing skepticism in some sections about spoofed data. Is this concern valid?
I approach most things – including the data – with healthy skepticism, but I discourage general suspicion. I think the evidence is that the data is under great pressure – there are documented delays in official data, and an official household consumption expenditure survey has been scrapped. The official explanation was that the data was not good enough, but given that it followed past conventions and had been verified, the most likely explanation is that the government buried it because it was not. not flattering. So the issues there were shelving and deleting rather than manipulation. Right now, I think the misuse of data for propaganda purposes is a bigger problem than the manipulation of real data.
What has the Covid taught us about the dangers of misreading data?
The pandemic has shown us, on the one hand, that data structures must be built in ‘peacetime’ so that we have the tools we need in a crisis, and do not try to form strategies in times of crisis. an emergency without the most basic understanding of the dynamics of disease and health infrastructure. It also showed us that low numbers shouldn’t be a reason to sit back and relax in a country where there isn’t a full record in almost every segment of the stats.


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