Wednesday, September 22, 2021
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Anchor: Statistical and data show

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Monalisa Changkija

This happened many years ago ~ probably in the early or mid-2000s. There was this seminar, workshop and basically brain-storming sessions for about a couple of days of several Northeastern NGOs that were involved in various aspects of employment of educated and uneducated youths at Dimapur. The day I attended one of the sessions, there was this very senior bureaucrat of the Government of Nagaland, who was the first speaker. As a very senior Government servant, he was invited to speak on our state Government’s perspectives and the plan of action already taken or proposals on issues of unemployment in Nagaland. Naturally this entailed a detailed background of the situation in our rural and urban areas, which he eloquently spoke with the help of numerous charts of statistics and data. Those were days before Power Point presentations therefore he used what were known as projectors ~ the modern kinds. The olden kinds of projectors were quite different. I remember watching “nationalistic” movies as a child in the 1960s at various Out-Posts ~ where my father was posted ~ on Republic Days and Independence Days. The old projectors were quite noisy ~ nevertheless in those days these movies were real treats and the highlights of the evening celebrations of these national days.

Coming back to our bureaucrat ~ he held forth on the subject of unemployment in Nagaland and what the Government was doing and planned to do with more statistical and data charts, pie charts and whatever they are called on our agricultural and related activities as well as on the industrial activities that created jobs, etc. More than 99% of what the statistics and data said obviously went over my head. I just noticed that some numerical figures were missing in a few of these charts. But I sat down and pretended to be rapt ~ I had no choice because the usher made me sit right in the front row. Basically what I understood is that against the background of all the statistics and data at hand, which he displayed, his contention was that our Government’s efforts towards employment generation wasn’t too bad but the scope existed for more employment for which the Government was planning this and that, etc. So far, so good ~ and then he opened the floor for the Q&A session.

That’s when things got a bit dicey for him. Several hands were raised and questions poured in. Most questions were about certain statistics and data not tallying ~ in fact, some of them contradicting others. Because of some missing figures, question were also asked how could any conclusions be drawn and projections made. Our bureaucrat’s total body language changed. You see, he didn’t have a mathematical and statistical academic background. But he is a very smart man. He asked the questioners “May I know your name?” One by one they replied “I am Dr. so-and-so, Head of Department of Mathematics, this University”. Some said they were Heads of Departments/Professors of Statistics, Applied Mathematics, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, etc. of this or that University or College. Our bureaucrat also had great presence of mind so he quickly said: “See, I must tell you that these are not my statistics but the Government’s” ~ thus he repudiated all the statistics and data he had based his contentions on. Thereby, he not only demolished his own contentions and arguments but also nullified the almost one and a half hour session. In short, he wasted all of our time.

But that’s the problem with statistics and data. No statistics and data are the last word on any issue. For every statistic and data, there is a counter statistic and data. You will remember that the months preceding the pandemic, one of the most crucial discourses in the country was on the Central Government not announcing the national employment statistics and data ~ with senior members of the national Statistical organization even quitting. Discourses were also ongoing in the same preceding months regarding several other Government statistics and data on various other issues. India has numerous private, autonomous and independent organizations that collect statistics and data on every aspect of our national life such as employment/unemployment, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, diseases, deaths, etc. Indubitably, statistics will not be the same because the respondent targets will differ from place to place, region to region, sex, age, class, educational backgrounds, political ideologies and affinities, besides a host of other factors. Moreover, methodologies also differ. More importantly, statistics and data are inevitably coloured by political and cultural ideologies and value-systems. So, as said earlier, statistics and data cannot be the last word on anything.

Coming to Nagaland, after mainstreaming into the modern methods of governance and administration, statistics and data became indispensable especially in the last 20 years or so. Technology also helped us integrate into this statistical and data world more smoothly. But how accurate and dependable are our statistics and data? Has any independent assessment been done? I don’t want to get into it now but I was also a very tiny part of Nagaland’s first Human Development Index Report and later the Human Development Index Report of Dimapur district. Nobody admitted it then and nobody will admit it now but I will. You see, for whatever aspect of human development that was written by both Government and non-Government persons, selected by the Government to write these Reports, Government statistics and data were provided and they had to be used. The time-span of the deadlines were so limited that there was no time to do independent statistics and data collection. And, frankly most of us were not qualified to do statistics and data collection, much less evaluate, collate, tally and tabulate.

I leave it to you to do your draw your own conclusions from the little I have written today about my perspectives of statistics and data. I am most unqualified to further hold forth on the subject. There are just a few points I will make here: (1) When speaking in seminars, workshops and brain-storming sessions, it is important to know who we are addressing ~ more so in Webinars because the whole world is watching and they tend to go viral. Our bureaucrat erroneously thought he was addressing young educated and uneducated unemployed persons. But the participants were highly educated and knowledgeable people working on employment/unemployment issues at both the academic and grass-roots levels. Body language also matters immensely, which can be deciphered easily ~ no need to be a Rocket Scientists for that. Also, however well-versed on the subject and however well prepared, these fora also reveal a person’s true self. (2) Anyone, especially Government people must be very judicious about the use of statistics and data to press a point because figures are not static and immutable and can be easily demolished with more research and evaluation. In any case, depending on who does the collection, collation, tallying and tabulation, etc., statistics and data can always be manipulated ~ therefore always suspect.

So, when our elected representatives ~ including Government Spokespersons ~ and bureaucrats throw statistics and data at us, we must take them with a pinch of salt. Tomorrow these very same people can repudiate these statistics and data saying: “They are not mine but the Government’s” ~ distancing themselves from not only the Government’s statistics and data but also from the Government itself. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why then were they using the Government’s statistics and data to press their point in the first place? Tomorrow these very same people can also repudiate these statistics and data if political scenarios change. Stranger things are known to happen. The other thing is if statistics and data can be manipulated, which they often are, they can also manipulate human beings ~ this is already happening across the globe particularly vis-à-vis the pandemic. Right now curtains are raising slowly ~ soon the real statistical and data show will start. And those vouching by these figures today will rush around with justifications tomorrow.