NRC-CAA move likely to stoke a statistical collapse

The government’s attempt to catch Bangladeshi infiltrators through an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has created communal poison. Social harmony, vital for economic progress has been bashed. An unexpected consequence will be a black hole in India’s statistics, making all decision-making guesswork.

Statistics are dry but vital to reveal where we are, how we got here, and how to progress. If a statistical fog renders all data dubious, we cannot identify what’s going right or wrong, or correct failures.

Protests against the NRC and CAA have suddenly made all data collection impossible in some states. The 2021 Census could become a fiasco, along with the NRC and National Population Register (NPR). The Census house-listing exercise is being done simultaneously with the NPR. This was never a problem earlier. But today, for fear of losing citizenship, many Indians refuse to answer questions, and even beat up surveyors.

While the CAA and NRC are controversial, the census should not be. But citizens cannot easily distinguish between surveys, and so suspect all. In Andhra Pradesh, officials of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) asking questions on social issues were attacked by villagers fearing this was linked in some way with the NRC. In West Bengal, NSSO enumerators are struggling to collect data on education, sanitation and employment. Harassment by villagers is rising so fast that the entire survey may be called off, for the first time since independence. The growing web of mistrust and acrimony means that the NSSO needs police protection. Even if this is given, citizens can lie or refuse to answer questions, rendering the surveys useless.

A minimal level of trust between citizens and governments is essential for decent governance but is fast disappearing. At Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, Muslim women protesting peacefully against the CAA and NRC wear headbands saying, “I love India,” wave national flags and sing the national anthem, pledging to protect the equality guaranteed by the Constitution against those in power wrecking it. Yet BJP stalwarts are calling the protesters terrorists, anti-nationals, pro-Pakstanis, and “tukde tukde” gangs wanting to break India up. Such communal falsehoods can only destroy what little trust remains between citizens and the state, wrecking justice, the economy and the statistical system.

Critics say NSSO surveyors do not visit villages, and instead fill up questionnaires sitting in coffee shops. This will worsen dramatically if surveyors are beaten up by suspicious crowds.

Several states — Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — have refused to implement one or all among the CAA, NRC and NPR. The BJP has offered to drop some questions (such as birthplace of parents) to assuage people’s fears and says an all-India NRC has not yet been decided on. But since Amit Shah has vowed to hold one, many are sure it will come, and are determined to sabotage that.

The BJP seeks votes by promising to throw out Muslim “termites” and “ghuspetiyas” from Bangladesh. In Assam, the NRC asked people to produce documents proving they were Indian. A whopping 1.9 million failed to produce documents, of whom 1.2 million were Hindus, 0.6 million were Muslims and 0.1 million were tribals. Clearly the exercise uncovered only the undocumented, not the illegals.

The CAA offers fast-track naturalisation to all non-Muslims. Only Muslims will be rendered stateless and put in detention camps. Projecting Assam’s experience, a national NRC would cost Rs 50,000 crore and trap 80 million people, including 10 million Muslims. Putting them in detention camps would be a human rights scandal ten times worse than China’s detention of one million Uighurs. India’s name will be mud and it will face global sanctions.

Collateral damage will include statistical wreckage. Recently Indian statistics have been slated for implausibility and fudging. Former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian thinks GDP is being overstated by maybe 2.5 percentage points. The latest Periodic Labour Force Survey showed unemployment tripling to 6.1%, but the government’s delayed the report and dismissed it as flawed. Then an NSSO survey showed a catastrophic fall in consumption per capita, implying a sharp rise in poverty despite miracle GDP growth. This too was suppressed and dismissed as flawed.

To restore credibility and accuracy, a new Statistical Committee under respected economist Pronab Sen has been asked to revamp the entire statistical system. But if communal polarisation means that surveyors will be beaten up, citizens will stop answering questions and state governments will refuse to implement surveys, Sen will be helpless. Hopefully the Supreme Court will strike down the CAA, ending this sorry chapter in history.

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