Elusive Development Goals To Exclude Majority

 

- Shalu Nigam

 

The current debate on beef ban, cow slaughter, meat ban and so on overlooks one of the crucial aspects that is how many poor people are really in the position to make such choices as to consume luxurious diet consisting of animal proteins or afford daily food consisting of cereal, pulses and vegetables. In a country where millions could not afford two proper meals a day, can they really exercise option of exercising choices in a period when inflation is increasing and economic policies are resulting in yawning income inequalities between the rich and the poor? However, the media, the politicians and the international organizations paint the picture otherwise for their vested interest. In order to divert attention from the basic issues like increasing hunger, growing poverty, escalating incidences of crime, mounting violence, rising pollution, falling health situation, decline in quality of education, rolling back of welfare provisions, reduction in the social security provisions, increase in infringement of basic freedoms, meaningless debates are being initiated. And often to substantiate the unjust discussions the data or the facts are being twisted and manipulated to suit the interest of presenter or a particular group rather than benefitting masses. This work looks at this aspect of politics of data where much difference persists between what the numbers shows and what actually exists on ground and the manner in which real focus is ignored. It points out to the situation where data and facts are often being controlled in a manner to present partial and distorted picture to serve the interest of a few. Moreover, in the free market economy where traditional ideologies are joining hand with the neoliberal agenda, often data and facts are being used to tell the stories befitting those in power while curtailing the everyday stories of masses of people who are struggling in the everyday life and rewriting their own destiny. An Irish singer, architect and a lecturer Frank Harte has very rightly stated “Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs... and, given our history, we have an awful lot of songs.”

 

The Number Game

In terms of research methodology, data provides objectivity and neutrality. Analysis of data offers credibility and provides evidence to prove a hypothesis or support an assumption. Yet, without considering the social situation in a comprehensive manner in itself data processing is incomplete. In this world of information and technology when much emphasis is laid on transparency and accountability, the numbers aid in supporting an argument however, quantification only reveals a partial picture as without the qualitative data the nuances pertaining to the situation may not be completely contextualized. More specifically, in terms of social interpretation, quantification of data involves omissions of the feelings of those from whom the information is collected and involves subjective, calculating, manipulative interpretation by those who collect or analyze it. Dealing with social complexities implies taking into consideration the perspective of those from whom the data has been collected. However, often, the definitions, the mechanism and the analysis are designed in an inconsistent and inadequate manner and therefore fail to truly capture the reality of the vulnerable. The language of research is politicized and corporatized in the neoliberal economy where fake numbers are privileged over real people. The politicized economic world doesn’t care about the social and emotional aspect of human life. The grammar of this new form of emerging globalized world sees citizens as consumers and overlooks vibrancy of a democracy. It transforms public spaces into terror and war zone where state play a little role in facilitating people and public spaces are occupied by commercial unimaginative zones which care less and less for diverse voices.

 

Today, in a data driven society connected by technology and networked digitally, ocean of information is accessible and the availability of information plays a significant role in shaping individual opinion, determining beliefs or framing policies or law at national or international level and of course, writing history. Production of knowledge in the contemporary world relies increasing on accumulation, analysis and evaluation of available information. In the current socio-economic and political scenario, debates and discussions often are based on the statistical evidences. These days, data is available not only in the form of spreadsheets, reports, records, charts which can be explored, analyzed, interrogated, in number, facts and figures but also as quoted by politicians, community leaders and academics. This data is presented in the form of research studies, reports and numerous other forms have been used by different sets of groups to substantiate their opinions. However, a sheer catastrophe of unconcern, insensitivity and inattentiveness steer the production and distribution of information and knowledge in the present commercialized politicized environment.

 

Data, in fact, is a becoming a contentious field of competing agendas. It is treated as a carefully constructed controlled system of knowledge which diverts attention from real issues to facts and figures exhibited by fancy pie charts, venn diagrams, bars and columns and numerous other forms including politically motivated speeches and manipulated news items. It has been seen that often, the picture is painted based on the vested interests of the few and the data is presented in a manner that to divert focus from the reality. Further, human complexities and nuances are often destroyed in the process of putting them in numerical figures or mathematical terms. The valid question or the crux issue often is neglected behind the presentation of facts using fancy charts, figures and statistics and therefore many social malaises continue to persist. Violence against women, poverty, hunger, lesser availability of basic facilities, history of the neglect of oppressed and vulnerable, all could not be addressed in spite of decades of noises and efforts being made to deal with the same mainly because often the survivors or victims in such instances are merely treated as data, numbers and subjects to be worked upon rather than active citizens who may participate in addressing the issues. Often, the policies and laws are framed and implemented by those who are insensitive to the subjectivities and sufferings of groups they are supposed to work with.

Many of the economic and social transformation projects are defined and driven by collection and analysis of data where logarithms and algorithms are managing processes while defining, shaping and controlling the social, political and economic spaces. The governments, the business and the international organizations are interpreting the social situations on the basis of numbers or indicators. However, elite organizations, the state and those in power use this knowledge production methods as opportunities to determine the rules of access to and methods of distribution of this data. Therefore, the question of data collection, interpretation, presentation, analysis and usage all becomes a double edged sword. The furor around data also gives rise to certain questions like what is this data and what does the numbers and the statistics determine? Why are these being used? Who is providing it? How it is collected and analyzed? How valuable is this data and what implications it will have on common lives? What is the correlation between this immense pool of data and general life and stories of real people who are at the suffering end? How this data can actually facilitate or hinder the socioeconomic complexities? In today’s world, when free market policies as a mouthpiece of capitalism are determining governance and policies in an unprecedented ways replacing progressive voices, enlightened social policies, democratic values and critical dialogue in a public sphere, how can one rely on data that is made available?

For instance, recently, in a discussion on violence against women most of the deliberations focus on crime figures, increasing incidents of different aspects of various aspects of crime against women like rape, deaths, violence, percentage variations over years, disparity across regions, socio-economic background of parties involved in crime, cases registered or not registered by the police, low conviction rates, the discussions on `safety and protection’ so on and so forth. However, what were missing in this debate were the crucial aspects relating to addressing structural inequalities to eliminate violence or to really addressing the rehabilitation of the survivors. The discussion treated the survivors as mere numbers, subjects and objects to be acted upon. Therefore, many of the suggestions that were pointed out relates to role of police in registering crime, impact of law, safety, policing protection and so on. The qualitative aspects of rehabilitating the survivors, providing basic services and framing policies to address the structural inequities were never mentioned during the debates.

 

Or more recently, the news of two dalit children in a family being burnt alive at their home was raised by media in the manner in which politicized the site of violence. However, what is being overlooked is the remedy in the situation, the psychological, social and emotional care aspect or the focus on prevention of such violence, or addressing the social, structural and economic inequalities which are the root causes of such brutalities. Violence in such situations is not considered as a complex phenomenon with its roots in social, cultural and historical background rather the politicians and media trivalized and normalized it by treating at as a single episode which may have affected a few. However, superfluous management of deeply embedded and entrenched inequalities as being done today could not resolve the real issues or benefit anyone in the long run. Also, the manner in which data is presented reflects on the fragility and uncertainty within the social space which is determined by the embodiment of neoliberal policies in an embedded divisive traditional culture governs the social and political discourse. Thoughtlessness and infantilism guide the mainstream public spaces which fuels spectacle of violence and breed irrationality while withering the public life.

 

Discrepancies in Data Processing

It is a well known fact that Asia, the world’s most populous continent is a home to more than half a billion chronically hungry people. However, the reports on the numbers released by different organizations vary not only in terms of defining the problem but also in statistically presenting the figures. Inconsistency in data gathering poses a big challenge because the system is not equipped to capture the important dimensions of qualitative data. For instance, the data on hunger varies in terms of how one defines malnourishment or undernourishment, food basket, calories intake, deficit in terms of nutrients and so on rather than simply focusing on number of people who are dying of hunger, or number of people who could not afford a meal per day or number of people compelled to sleep without food everyday, number of starving citizens etc. Working for decades on the issue of hunger and poverty, the consensus could not be achieve in reaching to one parameter of defining and measuring hunger and mitigating it. Angus Deaton who recently won Nobel in Economics used data from the National Sample Survey in India to measure poverty warns that there are enormous discrepancies between the data generated by different surveys and that the data has failed to capture the totality of the larger picture[1]. In a similar manner he explained that “malnutrition is not just about a lack of calories, and certainly not about a lack of cereal calories, but is more about the lack of variety in the diet ‒ the absence of things like leafy vegetables, eggs, and fruit. It is also crucially linked to inadequate sanitation, to the fact that women often do not get enough to eat when they are pregnant, and to (in many areas) poor maternal and infant health services”[2]. However, this fact is overlooked when the government or international report the data.

The common sign of poverty and hunger are visible everywhere. Even in cities with shiny high rise building, one may see people surviving in difficult situations. The scenario where malnourished children of labourers playing in the dust and the slums adjoining the pockets of growth with people who find it difficult to make their both ends meet are common in all Indian cities. Though not acknowledged by the governments, yet the common fact is that development policies have facilitated the growth and progress of small section of population leaving behind a large segment out of the purview of any progress. Yet, the data projects a different picture. Rather than focusing on widening inequalities the data released by different agencies paints a rosy superfluous picture. For instance, a report on UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which has been released recently talks about halving the proportion of chronically undernourished people in developing countries. The Global Hunger Index 2015 and Global Nutrition Update stated that one in three persons is affected by malnutrition. The Statistical Year Book, brought out by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation that is overseeing progress on the MDGs in India, shows that only six of the 18 targets adopted as part of the eight goals in 2000 have been fully met. Another report brought out by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific shows that India has met only four of the eight MDGs. As per the WHO’s annual World Health Statistics for 2015 released in Geneva[3], India has met only four of ten health targets under the MDGs, and has made next to no progress on another four. Also, there are reports which claim that “By the end of 2014, 72 developing countries had reached the MDG Goal 1 target. However, the number of hungry people in the world has only declined by a fifth from the billion estimated for 1991”[4]. Another report released by the Food and the Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that 795 million or around one in ten people globally are undernourished. 62 percent of these are based in Asia pacific region and India homes 194 million undernourished people, the highest in the world. The report titled `State of Food Insecurity in the World’ stated that the “higher economic growth has not been fully translated into higher food consumption, let alone better diets overall, suggesting that the poor and hungry may have failed to benefit much from overall growth,”. The report suggested that economic growth is definitely not inclusive and excludes those who are already marginalized. It pointed out that the “Rural people make up a high percentage of the hungry and malnourished in developing countries..;” Therefore, wide disparities in reporting about poverty and hunger by different international agencies not in any manner facilitates to or resolve actual issues neither these aid in formulating a policy which could eliminate hunger or poverty.

 

Similarly, in terms of territorial arrangements, different agencies provide different figures, however the ground realities remain the same. For example in India, as per the official figures, the country has managed to halve poverty rates from the 1990 levels, ensure gender parity in primary school enrolment, reversed incidence of HIV/AIDS, and reduced malaria and TB deaths. However, as per the Census 2011 report, 89 million children in the age group 0-3 were malnourished, with 35.6 million among them underweight. Moreover, the experiences from the field continue to show that India has failed to address prevalence of hunger and lags behind in checking maternal mortality and child mortality. Thus, it may be said that focusing on one aspect of data could not provide a complete picture. A host of factors may contribute to children being underweight rather than just deficiency in calories or protein. Poor hygiene, diseases, limited access to potable water all may contribute to the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food and this may manifest in nutrient deficits symptoms. In July 2014, the finance minister in his budget speech stated that a “Nutrition Mission” is essential to deal with this problem. However, despite the announcement to initiate a programme in September 2014, no action was taken and within few days the expenditure and finance committee rejected the ministry’s proposal for a nutrition mission. The political statement issued on nutrition thus failed to serve any purpose and surely could not eliminate malnutrition from the country. Despite the budget pronouncement made in 2014, drastic cuts were made in the budget of 2015 for Central government spending on nutrition and health schemes. And the prime minister’s speech at the Global Call to Action Summit 2015, in late August, did not even mention nutrition as an issue needed to be dealt with[5]

 

Even in areas where India claims to be close to meeting its targets, such as reversing the incidence of Malaria and TB, the disease burden continues to remain high in terms of absolute numbers[6]. In real terms many of the diseases are not controlled and Dengu, TB, Malaria, Dysentery remains as major causes of death. Preventive health care was not prioritized and increasing capacities of local hospitals in terms of number or quality of care was never considered as a major requirement. Further, India has failed to meet the maternal mortality reduction targets because for a long period, the state focused only on family planning. A large amount of resources were invested to control the population rather than providing for the maternal and child care. The programmes like Janani Suraksha Yojana, was introduced in 2005 with its conditional cash transfer component. In 2010, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) launched the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) in 53 districts across the country to address high Maternal Mortality Rate and Infant Mortality Rate. The IGMSY provides partial wage compensation to pregnant and lactating women in order to promote healthy feeding practices. Under the scheme, all pregnant women of 19 years and above, except those employed by the government or Public Sector Undertakings are entitled to Rs. 6,000 per live birth, in three installments for the first two live births. The scheme is conditional on timely registration, complete vaccination, and breastfeeding the child. A qualitative study of the IGMSY conducted by the Centre for Equity Studies in 2014, in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh revealed widespread neglect of the scheme[7]. Official data showed that between the years 2010 and 2013, only 28 per cent of the targeted beneficiaries were covered. At the end of 2014, the MWCD announced a proposed scale up of the IGMSY to 200 additional ‘high burden’ districts in 2015-16. However, the government’s lack of commitment to expand the IGMSY is betrayed through the budget allocation of Rs. 438 crore, an increase of Rs. 80 crore from 2014-15. Given the absence of Centre-State cost sharing, this one-fifth increased allocation of last year’s budget is disproportionate to the proposed expansion.

 

Half Baked Data, Piecemeal Approach: Betraying Development Deceiving People

The United Nations[8] in a Summit adopted ‘a set of global goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as a part of new sustainable development agenda’. This is done by adopting a piece meal approach with no clear goals and therefore may be seen as mere eyewash agenda. For instance, there is a goal on preparing against climate chaos and not to prevent it. Similarly the summit does not talk about ending war or disarmament thus in a way it is legalizing defensive war[9]. Also, the goal indicator for the SDG target 5.4 on valuing domestic work may focus on calculation of average weekly work hours spent on unpaid care and work though the emphasis could be laid on monetary value of unpaid work, social protection of care workers and progress on sharing care work between men and women besides missing the aspect of inclusion though it generally talks about `leaving no one’.[10] Further, the goal 1 talks about `ending poverty in its all forms everywhere’ and targets for eradicating extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030[11]. It aims to implement social protection systems during the period when the governments across the third world are rolling back the social support and welfare measures made available to poor and general population under the pressure from the World Bank. Further, it ambitiously states that by 2030, it will be ensured that `all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance’. However, nowhere it is clarified that how it will be ensured that poor will acquire, own or control property and resources in the socio-economic climate when the governments over the world, dictated by the free market economy regime, are vying to create `conducive business environment’ to facilitate corporate sector to grab the land and other natural resources thus marginalizing the poor while dispossessing and oppressing them. The UN Sustainable development goals do not address the real structural inequalities to address poverty or hunger or in any manner propose inclusion of marginalized sections. Rather what is suggested is superficial measures like providing microfinance, technological and financial services to tackle scarcity. Such actions will not be able to end poverty as these strategies do not focus on redistribution of wealth or resources, neither these goals make states liable to end poverty or compel them to commit to empower poor in a manner that would foster equitable development benefitting all. Rather these goals envisioned by the UN reiterate the principles of free market economy which is bound to further deepen the already embedded and entrenched inequalities and therefore pronouncing this goal to end poverty seems futile and a sham. Though based on analytical data these goals exclude majority of people living on margins in the third world countries.

Data Deficit: Who is Responsible – Respondents or the State?

A recent note[12] while emphasizing the key role of statistics in developing and planning argued that the certain key level issues affects data collection. According to the authors, these include illiteracy and awareness on the part of the respondents, no visible benefits to them, respondent’s fears and reluctance, their non cooperative attitude, too many surveys, lengthy and complex questionnaires, untrained manpower, among others. The authors therefore suggested remedies like public awareness, changing mindsets, comprehensive questionnaire, using technology and other similar measures. However, what has been overlooked in the discussion is the `human’ aspect of data processing. From a perspective of a policymaker this debate is wonderful yet it fails to take into account the people from whom data is being collected. It does not take into account the social and emotional aspect of data collection and overlooks qualitative and humane elements in data processing. The note claimed that respondents are reluctant to share the information but it failed to take into account the perspective of those who are at receiving end. These people are least interested in the `purpose of research’ because they are too preoccupied to deal with their own harsh realities. As a respondent, a person who is starving is not interested in larger policy issue or a person affected by a calamity looks for immediate relief rather than providing information for the record or the document purpose. A person who has lost his job will rarely be interested in providing details unless his basic survival issues are being looked into. It is not about the visible benefits that a respondent may or may not see but it is about his or her immediate environment, circumstances, issues, needs all of which plays a significant role in determining his or her capability to provide the information or participate in a survey. The data processing mechanism thus need to create space for such inequities as their interest or their stories may be downplayed for lack of systematic “evidence”. This approach further creates binaries in terms of `us’ and `them’. Those from whom the data has been collected are seen as `others’ at the receiving end. It fails to capture the human agency, the spirit, the emotions and the subjectivities of common people. Foucault while looking at the Hegel’s construct of otherness argued that this process of `Othering’ has to do everything with imaginaries and power acting through knowledge to achieve particular political agenda with the goal of domination and control.

 

Data Driven Growth Projections Fail to Capture the True Social Reality

Today, in the world driven by the corporate economy, everything is quantified, commodified and politicized. Progress, in this world is defined in numbers. Everything is measured and defined in the management terms as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound) goals. Quantification became a buzz word. Labour as a method of production is reduced to number of work hours. Performance has been reduced to number of hours put in or it is being evaluated by reducing qualitative produce to output, or number that is measurable. Similarly, education has been reduced to number of schools, teacher-student ratio, institution ranking, or the marks obtained by the students rather than focusing on what students actually learn in school. The knowledge itself is quantified and has been reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold in the market. Health care facilities are being quantified in terms of number of hospitals, beds, or number of doctors rather than centering on providing quality care. The debate surrounding environmental issues focuses on determining carbon footprints rather than striving to sustain ecological balance. The question on poverty is focused on determining the poverty line rather than truly eliminating poverty or reducing inequalities and the hunger has been reduced to figures on calories intake or nutritional basket rather than actually putting food on plates of people who are starving. Priority is laid on formulating sustainable goals rather than actually creating a sustainable balanced environment between human and nature. In this form of transformation war against poverty becomes war against poor. People who face problems are seen as `problem people’ and combating hunger here implies hostility against the hungry.

Manipulating the Data for the Vested Interests

Today in a corporatized, globalized and politicized economy, playing with the data, and manipulating it to show the desired results is seen as a necessity. How much severe the crisis is or even if the data shows losses, deficiencies or negative results; yet what is considered as significant is to show positive end result. In this kind of politicized atmosphere it is essential that to use the number game intelligently. Manipulating the data in a way to show the positive yield therefore becomes essential. For instance, in case the company is making losses in terms of revenue focus on increase in number of customers, in case it is losing clients, focus on territorial expansions and on the manner it is unleashing and conquering new geographical territories or is launching new products to escalate profits, acquiring new customers, new source of profits, building and strengthening `last mile connectivity’ or focusing on imaginary gains; the aim is to not let the investors focus onto the real crisis, real numbers or incurred losses. Similarly, in the development sector, when the basic ills like poverty and hunger cannot be eliminated politically it becomes essential to focus on positive aspects and goods and talk about GDP, gross national income, economic development, number of people existing above poverty line etc. though this is not going to help in a long run. Corruption, leakages, errors and little accountability, all ills can be pushed under the carpet in the superfluous debate. Further to show decline in poverty, focus is laid on the debate on fixing the poverty line rather than actually eliminating poverty. This spurious deliberation on numbers also distracts focus from real issues like discrimination against and exclusion of those who actually need social sector programmes and services the most like the poor, migrants, street hawkers, slum residents or unorganised workers. Experiences revealed that often, the data is fudged on records, which renders the monitoring of progress on development indicators ineffective and accountability meaningless. Further, the political discretion in engaging with such data collection and presentation plays an enormous role and is trapped in the `politics’[13]. Also, reporting correct data is considered as “a high-risk and low-reward activity”.

Re-interpreting the Data and Rewriting the History

The politics on data processing thus results in eradicate poor rather than eliminating poverty. Such superfluous discussions on developing and meeting indicators or targets exterminate the hungry rather than addressing hunger. In such discussion and debates around the data, the significant issue is lost in meaningless politics of denial of issues. Rather than focusing on putting food on people’s plates or to ensure that all must at least get two meals a day the pointless arguments about drawing poverty lines is leading to nowhere. Addressing global challenges of administering wrongful policies that are widening inequalities or dealing with factors as volatility of prices of essential commodities, high food price, rising unemployment and underemployment, rolling back of social security and welfare measures, political and economic instability created due to natural calamities or manmade disasters all need to be looked into against the backdrop of hunger and poverty or to ensure food security. Similarly, to deal with violence it is essential to tackle structural issues pertaining to inequalities and oppression. The need is to focus on the socio-political and economic implications of data collection.

Educators, intellectuals, writers, artists, students and various people across the world are coming together and social movements are making efforts to lend visibility to market and political fundamentalism and are redefining strategies to oppose it. New public spheres are being created and social spaces are being occupied using innovative methods to rewrite history collecting data and reproducing it in a manner to bring out the truth. Traces of the emerging movements are visible in the form of protests by students, writers and the civil society and people’s movements. Campaigns have been initiated to reclaim democratic spaces by the commons where collective struggles are using the language of justice and imagination to rewrite the history and this is accompanied by the progressive use of digital technology, production of new mode of information, using diverse mode to capture data, a different method to rewrite the stories of vulnerable, evolving democratic spheres of creation, production and distribution of knowledge, identifying new ways of nurturing collective hopes, desires, identities to forge a way for vibrant democracy. The grammar of critique and hope is being developed to wage a war against oppressive ideologies and repressive state which goes beyond a single political issue to struggle against the regressive ideologies that treat people as subjects. Xaxa[14] in these few lines captured the perspective and agency of those at the margin and are willing to rewrite the destiny on their own while moving beyond rhetorical conventional spaces:

“I am not your data, nor am I your vote bank,
I am not your project, or any exotic museum object,
I am not the soul waiting to be harvested,
Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested,

I am not your cannon fodder, or the invisible worker,
or your entertainment at India Habitat Center,
I am not your field, your crowd, your history,
your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory,
I refuse, reject, resist your labels,
your judgments, documents, definitions,
your models, leaders and patrons,
because they deny me my existence, my vision, my space,

your words, maps, figures, indicators,
they all create illusions and put you on pedestal,
from where you look down upon me,

So I draw my own picture, and invent my own grammar,
I make my own tools to fight my own battle,
For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi self!”

 

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