I read a book called “How to Lie with Statistics” as an undergraduate. It instilled a healthy disdain for statistics and “data-driven policymaking.” It is not only about how resilient the data is but also about which data set is being used and why. When confronted with a set of disagreeable facts, bureaucrats would respond, “That is your ‘version’ of the truth.” Can different versions of the truth exist? Contrary and inconsistent statistics have enabled those of us who quote, rely on, and shape demands, policy, and needs to select the figures that best suit our requirements.
On the basis of expected statistics, pundits say that industrialization will lead to growth and development. Rajasthan’s mining of sandstone, marble, and granite is technically industrial growth. It has left pockmarks on the terrain.
Workers who are exposed to fine dust get silicosis. An illness that kills more people than cancer, aging patients much beyond their years and shortening their lives; many die before the age of 40. Mine owners do not provide appropriate compensation or protective equipment to their employees. A long battle with the Rajasthan government has resulted in a policy guaranteeing health benefits and pensions for individuals crippled and doomed by silicosis.
There are numerous stories about India’s economic situation. Official projections show an economy galloping toward the top of the world rankings. There are, however, different statistical tales. What and who is in the spotlight? To understand the living reality of “other Indias,” we only need to live in rural India or look at what was hidden behind the green curtains drawn during the G20 meeting in Delhi on September 23, read the Oxfam Inequality Report – and comparable economic reviews.
Beyond the growth argument, there are prevailing people’s concerns. In actual terms, minimum wages and basic income guarantees for India’s informal/agrarian sector have decreased. Health-related debts are a significant burden on communities that rely on modern medicine and the high cost of private hospitals. Insurance is threatening to supplant national health insurance; the state’s duty for education is rapidly shrinking as private education institutions proliferate and become de facto institutes of general education. Farmers are under threat from agro-business and a relentless assault on public support, as minimum support prices are being replaced by a free market–a contradiction in terms–controlled by enormous capital.
Small landholders are losing their properties to an aggressive policy of urbanization and corporate investment. People who live away from metropolises and big urban centers have seen India’s unemployment grow to 7.93% according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) – 2023, once touching its peak (2019, Ministry of Labor), in the last 45 years. The results of India’s lopsided “growth” is a disaster for large segments of its population: (malnutrition, poverty, statistics).
For the past 33 years, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) has focused on people’s socioeconomic and political challenges. The primary focus has been on participatory democracy, policy development, and demanding democratic and civil rights for people. The goal is to provide structural solutions, including ways to construct policies and laws to empower communities.
The architecture of people’s public policy has been creative and practical. It is located in the firm conviction that addressing inequality is the primary function of the State; bound as it is, by the constitution and its electoral promises; to guarantee freedom from hunger, the right to work, education, health, and freedom of expression. Rights as laws, enable people to monitor the state, to control corruption and the arbitrary use of power. These entitlements allow people to demand the implementation of guarantees such as the right to life, liberty, and dignity.
The market on the other hand is concerned with maximizing profit and returns. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a mere 2 percent of the net profit of the company diverted to philanthropy. Any entity driven by profit will logically resist being undermined by the demand for real economic equality. The responsibility of the welfare state in a democracy can never be replaced by other entities.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)’s achievement in addressing unemployment and poverty demonstrates a point in both scale and design. To provide development benefits to a country as huge and populous as India, structural vision and practical implementation are required.
The MGNREGA provided for both and included measures from the Right to Information Act to create special requirements for transparency and accountability in order to combat corruption and arbitrary power use. It was the first law to make statutory public monitoring of government implementation through social auditing or public auditing mandatory.
“The single most innovative program from India; a lesson for the whole world, it was that program (MGNREGA),” said Stiglitz in response to a question on how India can minimize or eradicate inequality.
During the meltdown, MGNREGA kept the local markets floating while addressing hunger and unemployment. In the mass-reverse migration during COVID-19, millions survived because there was rural employment.
Every time the government changes, programs too are liable to be revised. The enactment of Rights-based laws guarantees the continuity of welfare rights. That is why the Rights-based laws – Right to Information (RTI), Forest Rights Act (FRA), National Food Security Act (NFSA), and Right to Education (RTE), Street Vendors Act, progressive changes in the Land Acquisition Act, Prevention of SC/ ST Atrocities Act, Disability Act, etc, have been both lauded and feared. The Right to information law guaranteed a right to question power and demand answers – to procure documents and scrutinize them.
The Central Government has been hostile to the rights-based framework. However, in Rajasthan, the state government extended the people’s agenda, working with civil society formations, and enacting many path-breaking legislations. Amongst them, the Minimum Income Guarantee Act – 2023: provides a minimum level of social security, the Right to Health, the welfare of Gig workers, and a proper budgetary share for Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes, which has given practical shape to Article 21 of the Constitution, guaranteeing the Right to Life. In the advocacy to claim these rights, people’s campaigns have learned to use correct data to build their own sustainable arguments for claiming what is legitimately theirs.
The engagement with campaigns and people’s struggles, to make entitlements part of governance, gives hope, resilience, and the possibility that democracy will continue to work for the vulnerable. People have realized, that “there are lies, damned lies and statistics” (Mark Twain) and redefined fact-based statistics to win their battles for equality and access to democratic rights.
Aruna Roy is an Indian social activist, professor, union organiser, and former civil servant.