A Rashomon election: How ideology blinds people from seeing plain facts

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Updated: May 4, 2019 7:04:29 AM

NSSO should be again made a leader in the provision and quality of statistics, as it was under the chairmanship of the late PC Mahalanobis in the 1950s and1960s.

The genius of that film was in the way it communicated so brilliantly that while we think we recognise truth, the truth of reality is often more complex, because each person brings her own subjectivity to the experience.

My three greatest movies of all time, are, in no particular order Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thief, and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Make it four—Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. When the occasion commands, I will talk about three of the above later—today, I want to talk about Rashomon.

Most of us decode the meaning of reality as what you see is what you get. What reality is or is not was vividly brought home to the world by Kurosawa in his film, Rashomon. The genius of that film was in the way it communicated so brilliantly that while we think we recognise truth, the truth of reality is often more complex, because each person brings her own subjectivity to the experience.

Well, Election 2019 is turning out to be Rashomon-esque. Everybody is seeing the same “facts”, yet have a different description of the reality, and its effect on the election. I will present several economic, political, and social examples below. You figure out which belongs to an alternate universe and which does not. Ten times out of nine the interpretation will be a function of your pre-conceived ideology. You don’t believe me? Read on.
Surgical strike: Former prime minister Manmohan Singh came out with an observation that even under UPA, there were surgical strikes. The reality of the surgical strike, as we were made to believe till now, was an incursion at least a few kilometers away into undisputed Pakistan territory. We now have a new definition offered by the Congress party; echoing the comedy film Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, a surgical strike is defined as any skirmish a few metres around the Line of Control. Alternate universe or what?

Masood Azhar: China finally allowed terrorist mastermind Masood Azhar to be branded a global terrorist. In prospect and retrospect, this was a well-crafted diplomatic effort under PM Modi for which the Indian diplomatic corps should be congratulated by everyone. Step by step, brick by brick, Masood Azhar was castled. All Indians should be celebrating. But wait.We are in the midst of Election 2019 in which gold becomes rust. According to former Congress finance minister P Chidambaram, all political honours are even: “the process to name [Azhar] as a global terrorist was started by the UPA government” (emphasis added). Does that mean that the Congress will now allow revenge of Pulwama (Operation Balakot) to be mentioned in campaign speeches as long as the statement is preceded by the disclaimer: “We succeeded in a surgical strike made possible because of 70 years of misguided efforts to solve the “Kashmir” problem as started by Nehru and the Congress government in 1947?”
Swachh Bharat: PM Modi shocked the nation, and the world, with openly discussing the need for an open-defecation free (ODF) India. No longer left for hushed discussions, and never in front of children, discourse of habits of defecation became a policy goal. An ambitious goal was declared by the Modi government—India was to be ODF by 2019.

How impossible was this goal? Looking at the international evidence, definitely impossible in just three years, with the base as 2015-16. And, there were plenty of critics who marshalled all the evidence about habit formation, and lack of water, etc, to claim that rural India could not achieve zero open defecation in 2019 from a level of 55.6 % in 2015.

There is strong international evidence to back the impossibility claim. Since 2000, the World Bank has been reporting data on open defecation for more than 120 countries (urban and rural). Data are available from 2000—in that year India is reported to have 82.2 % of rural areas as Not ODF; both government of India (GoI) and World Bank report rural NODF as 55.6 % in 2015. What are the statistical chances of achieving zero NODF by 2019? Zilch.

But GoI data (sbm.gov.in) suggests that in 2018, only 8.8% of rural India was not ODF; for 2017, the estimate is 30.8 %. The 2018 number is an improvement of around 46 percentage points (ppt) in just three years. One of the important aspects about Alternate Reality Election 2019 is that suddenly, in just three to five years, all Indian institutions have transformed from pristine to sullied, contaminated, and worse. In other words, government data just cannot be believed anymore because it is all inspired creativity to fool the Indian public—and the BJP, and the institutions, are obviously stupid in thinking that they have any credibility left (and hence will be defeated in Election 2019, but that is best left for another occasion).

Given that “facts” are, at best, unknown, and at worst, manipulated, let us assume that not 10% but 25% of rural India was NODF in 2018, i.e., the Swachh Bharat Mission was misguidedly over-estimating achievements (election season, remember) and reporting a 25% NODF reality figure as 8.8%.This would be one of the largest misguided errors of the Modi government, but let us assume that this error was made. (Trolls and other expert economists and social scientists—before misquoting me, please look up the dictionary meaning of assume).

Some of the most critical professional sanitation experts do grant that substantial progress has been made in toilet usage; it is also acknowledged that, in many areas, water supply is a problem; also, that women and girls are motivated to use toilets and that old men are most hesitant to change habits. Hence, an estimate that reality maybe better approximated by 25%, not 9%. The move from 56% to 25% is a 31 ppt move in just three years.

According to World Bank data, the best three year performance in NODF change among 108 countries since 2000 was in Ethiopia—a decline of 11.5 ppt between 2004 (74.3%) and 2007 (62.8%). The second- and third-best performers are Cambodia (decline of 8.3 ppt) and Pakistan (decline of 8 ppt). The seventh-best performer was neighbouring Nepal, and India was ranked 13th. Rural NODF in India declined by 5.3 ppt (from 60.9 % to 55.6 %) between 2012 and 2015 (World Bank).

Even with the troll-free decline of 31 ppt between 2015 and 2018, the pace of NODF decline in India was three times as fast as the best performer in the world since 2000. Research into NODF decline in Europe and the US in the 19th century (the first toilet was discovered in 1852) might confirm that what has been achieved by the SBM is a world record, and by a huge margin.

Employment or jobs: A lot has been written about the alternative fact that very few jobs were created in India during the six years between 2011-12 and 2017-18. It is argued that these years, rather the time since May 2014, represent a data-distorted universe (Election 2019). The years between 2004-05 and 2011-12 represented the highest GDP growth in India, and it was a “clean”, “reliable” data dissemination period because the UPA was in power. According to the usual status definition (the same which reports unemployment at a 45-year high of 6.1% in 2017-18) there were only 5 million jobs created between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

Strangely, this alternate reality is not talked about by those waxing eloquent about the reliability of NSSO data. I believe there are legitimate grounds for the new government (under whichever leadership) to junk the NSSO household interview surveys on employment and unemployment in favour of NSSO surveys of employees, potential and actual.

NSSO should be again made a leader in the provision and quality of statistics, as it was under the chairmanship of the late PC Mahalanobis in the 1950s and1960s. Only then will we able to separate signal from noise, from alternate to real reality.

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