The Politics of Official Data
TCA Anant
Numbers in India's Periphery by Ankush Agrawal and Vikas Kumar Cambridge University Press, 2020, 371 pp., 889.00
October 2021, volume 45, No 10

The poor quality of official statistics is the basis for many criticisms of the Government these days. Whether it is the handling of the COVID pandemic, the state of the economy, or the quality of life of people in society, a common refrain of all critics is that of the poor and declining quality of Government data. Ironically, this situation has come about in large measure because of the success of official statisticians in persuading policy makers, commentators, and civil society activists to use data and empirical arguments in their discussions. However, the use of data in policy and policy discourse has created its own challenges for the people responsible for data collection. How policy and policy making influence data collection, and are in turn affected by it, is a complex story not often told, and very poorly understood. A recent book by Ankush Agrawal and Vikas Kumar, Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics, highlights these challenges in an engaging and accessible manner.

Their story begins with the puzzle created by Nagaland in the 2011 Census, when quite unusually, it reported a drop in its total population. Slowing down and stagnating populations are concerns normally associated with developed countries at an advanced stage of demographic transition. For such a phenomenon to manifest itself in Nagaland was curious, to say the least. The book represents the authors’ attempt to make sense of this paradoxical situation. It brings out how the complex socio-political conflict in Nagaland creates problems for the quality and reliability of official data, focusing on three interconnected areas of cartography, population censuses and sample surveys. Their story focuses on, but is not limited to, Nagaland as elements of their analyses apply to data over the entire North East, and also regions like Jammu & Kashmir. The same issues arise to a lesser extent in Naxalite-affected regions of the country as well.

Continue reading this review