'Unhappy With Data Sets,' Modi Govt Suspends Director of Institute Which Prepares NFHS

The Union government has been known for its very uneasy relationship with data. It has missed a deadline for the decadal Census. Its handling of Consumption Expenditure series and then the timing of the release of unemployment data has been strongly criticised in the past.

New Delhi: In an unprecedented move, the Union government has suspended the director of the International Institute for Population Sciences, K.S. James, citing an irregularity in recruitment, sources have told The Wire.

The International Institute for Population Sciences or IIPS prepares the National Family Health Surveys and does other such important exercises on the behalf of the Indian government. The IIPS comes under the Union health ministry.

The Wire reached out to the ministry but has not received a response yet. The story will be updated as and when the ministry responds.

However, an IIPS source at the department of public health and mortality studies has confirmed to The Wire that a suspension letter has been issued and that further details would come on Monday.

Sources told The Wire that James had been asked by the government to resign earlier as the government was not happy with certain data sets that came up in the surveys conducted by the IIPS. 

However, he was reluctant to step down for reasons being given, they said.

The letter of suspension was sent to James on the evening of July 28, today. 

Also read: Govt Note Cites ‘Charges’ Against IIPS Head, Insiders Say He Was Already Facing Flak For ‘Unflattering’ Data

Inconvenient data?

For a government that believes in strong and ‘positive’ data, to work in tandem with its political campaign for electoral victories, the NFHS-5 had thrown up several data sets inconvenient for the government.

For example, it showed that India was nowhere close to being open defecation free – a claim that this government, including the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, often makes. Nineteen percent of households do not use any toilet facility, meaning that they practice open defecation, the NFHS-5 had pointed out. There is not a single state or Union Territory, except for Lakshadweep, where 100% of the population has access to a toilet, it had said.

The NFHS-5 had also showed that more than 40% households did not have access to clean cooking fuel – thus questioning the claims of success of the Ujjwala Yojana. It said in rural areas, more than half the population, 57%, does not have access to LPG or natural gas. 

The NFHS-5 had also said anaemia in India was on the rise, and there have been some recent reports that the government was mulling to drop the anaemia measurement for NFHS-6. 

Recently, a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, Shamika Ravi, had written an op-ed in the Indian Express claiming that data collection for NFHS and other such surveys was flawed. Her article was criticised in another op-ed by Amitabh Kundu and P.C. Mohanan, published in the newspaper. 

James was appointed the director of the Mumbai-based institute in 2018. He has a postdoctoral degree from Harvard Centre for Population and Development. Prior to joining the IIPS, he was professor of population studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has held a couple of leadership positions. 

Serious questions over data and Union government

The Union government has been in the news often for a very uneasy relationship with data.

It’s trashing of its own Consumption Expenditure Survey in its first term led to adverse commentary and raised eyebrows.

The government withheld unemployment data in January 2019 and released it only after the general elections were over. This led to resignations of members of the National Statistical Commission. This included the acting chairman of the apex statistical body, P.C. Mohanan.

“We were feeling the commission was not being taken seriously and it has not been effective. Some of the decisions of the commission were not also considered. We thought we were being sidelined. Hence, we have sent our resignation to the President of India on Monday,” Mohanan had said.

Both Mohanan and the other member J.V. Meenakshi’s terms had been valid till June 2020. 

The decadal Census which was due in 2021, is yet to be conducted by this government. This is the first time in 150 years that the Census has been postponed.