Why the data block?

India does not know how many people are poor or who they are; no consumer expenditure survey has been done in the last decade. We also do not know how employed or unemployed the workforce is

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 19 August 2022
Modi Independence Day 2022: photo: Twitter / @narendramodi

A history book makes one more aware of the present. Nikhil Menon’s Planning Democracy is one such book. An assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, US, Menon has chronicled India’s tryst with five-year plans.

“The book uses planning as a lens through which to understand the Indian state and the nature of Indian democracy after Independence,” Menon writes in the introduction.

India’s adoption of a centralised planned economy was a global development that saw debates from countries on both the Left and Right sides of the political economy.

“The language of Plans quickly became pervasive in the lives of Indian citizens… Between the atom bomb dropping on Hiroshima and the fall of the Berlin Wall, planning stalked the global policy landscape. Far from being an Indian oddity, it drew legitimacy from an international push during the Second World War, spilling over into a transnational planning moment in the middle decades of the twentieth century,” Menon infers.

The book tells the story of five-year plans through the life and time of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the nascent country’s data-keeper and developer. In a way, it shows how data helps steer a country towards planned development.

“The dawn of Independence led to a surge in the state’s interest in data. Stimulated by the needs of a planned economy, the 1950s saw a massive expansion in the fledgling state’s data capabilities,” it reads.

Cut to August 2022, the 75th year of Independence. Aspiration for a “new India” is being fuelled. We are told to reiterate our “Indian-ness” with a photo of the national flag in our virtual accounts' display picture space. Amid this, Menon’s book reminds us that most Indians have just lived through five years without a plan.

India’s last five-year plan, the 12th one, ended in March 2017. In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance government scrapped the Planning Commission and replaced it with NITI Aayog. In its stead came a vision document that would need states to act together and foster cooperative federalism.

Planning Democracy begins with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day speech, when he made this declaration. The first such “vision” is the “Strategy for New India@75”, released in 2018. It aims to build a “new India” that would “enable us to achieve freedom from squalor, illiteracy, corruption, poverty, malnutrition and poor connectivity”.

At least 17 of the targets have a deadline in 2022 under the vision. Analysis by Down To Earth’s annual State of India's Environment 2022, which uses government data, shows that we are likely to miss most targets.

Another aspect that makes Planning Democracy relevant is that it highlights how crucial data surveys are to script development programmes, both planned and visioned.

But in the past few years, we have seen a data block. India does not know how many people are poor or who they are; no consumer expenditure survey has been done in the last decade. We also do not know how employed or unemployed the workforce is. But we do know how many people a welfare scheme or programme has benefitted.

In recent months, Modi has started to talk about the poor, now being referred to as the labharthi varg. But without knowing this section of the population, how is the government targeting its development schemes? On what basis does it claim that the “poor” have received all the welfare benefits?

Decades ago, just before the First Five-Year Plan was rolled out, the then government commissioned the National Sample Survey in 1950 to provide the socio-economic data needed to direct and define development designs. Currently, many of this institution’s surveys are being junked, perhaps because their findings do not suit the political leadership.

But as they say, what gets measured gets managed. If we are not measuring, inevitably, we will not be able to manage — notwithstanding the claims of the new India.

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