Surrealism is a permanent invitee in India’s political economy and systemic creativity is on exhibition in every session of Parliament.
The first week of the monsoon session produced a masterpiece. The government informed Parliament that “No deaths due to lack of oxygen has been specifically reported by states/UTs”. In art, surrealism is about unleashing the creative potential of an unconscious mind by means of irrational juxtapositions and combinations. In India’s political economy, surrealism is the outcome of conscious obfuscation of inadequacies.
The technically correct (after all the Union Government only conveys what States report) and politically disastrous articulation reflects the pervasion of apathy and insensitivity. Such is the state of affairs that the bureaucracy has erased the distinction between data and information, between deniability
Can words camouflage the distressing images of the three months, of plaintive pleas for help, the fact that no less than six ministries of government were scrambling for oxygen supplies? Why would governments — union and states — deny validation of causality for the grief stricken?
And it is not just about Covid deaths. Studies estimate every year air pollution claims over half a million lives. On July 23, Lok Sabha MP Rodmal Nagar asked about deaths caused by air pollution. The government’s response: “There is no conclusive data available to establish a direct correlation of death/disease exclusively due to air pollution” even as it listed 124 cities where pollution breached the accepted norms for five successive years. In 1998, the government was asked about deaths caused by air pollution. The answer: “There is no conclusive data available to establish direct co-relationship”. Clearly, successive governments believe Indians are immune to air pollution.
Given the distress and devastation witnessed during the pandemic, MPs have sought to know the state of the public health care system. Arvind Kumar Sharma and Alok Kumar Suman, MPs in Lok Sabha, asked about the shortage of doctors in rural areas and steps being taken. In response, the government revealed that over 90,000 sanctioned posts ranging from doctors to dentists to nursing and para medical staff are vacant. But the data is from Rural Health Statistics March 2019. So we don’t know what the status is in 2021.
Lok Sabha member T N Prathapan and five others asked for “total number of hospital beds in Government hospitals in the country”. The answer: “Health’ being a State subject, it is primarily the responsibility of the State Government/UTs to make efforts for increasing the bed strength in their hospitals in accordance with requirements and fund availability. No such data in this respect is centrally maintained.”
Curiously, the government answering another question revealed that isolation and ICU bed capacity was 18.21 lakh and 1.22 lakh, respectively! So why doesn’t it know the number of hospital beds?
Only recently, India celebrated, justifiably, the completion of rural electrification. Bhartruhari Mahtab, BJD MP from Odisha, asked about the status of electrification of schools. The response: “As per Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+) 2019-20, there are 1507708 schools in the country out of which 1257897 schools have electricity – effectively 249811 schools across the country do not have access to electricity.” How does one reconcile 100 per cent electrification and lack of lighting in centres of learning — and the grand plans of digital learning?
The cult of evasion and state of denial is stark when it comes to the issue of livelihoods. On the first day of the session, MPS asked the government for details on ‘the number of casual/contract employees retrenched from their jobs during this second wave of Covid pandemic’. The long-winded reply of the government lists initiatives ranging from subvention via EPFO for new hiring to credit extended by RBI. There is no mention of any idea of jobs lost. The system simply doesn’t have a mechanism to record job losses!
MSMEs account for the bulk of employment and 40 per cent of GVA (gross value addition) in the economy. MPs asked the government for details on the number of MSMEs which went sick or closed down and loss of jobs. True to template, the government listed the steps which the RBI had taken for extension and restructuring of credit and even cited two surveys which stated 88 per cent of MSMEs were affected by the pandemic. But the answer did not reveal if the government knew the number of MSMEs which went under — this when over 102.32 lakh MSMEs are listed on the Udyog Aadhaar Portal.
The design of development rests on a simple construct: that which is measured can be improved. How does a system persist with an architecture where critical information is either not measured, not available or is hopelessly outdated? The gaps in data and information allow perverse incentives for evasion and obfuscation. Can a modern economy in the 21st century, with aspirations of being a digital economy afford the yawning gap between allocations, outcomes and accountability?
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India