Release honest data and thou shalt pay the price

The suspension of noted demographer and IIPS director K.S. James raises many red flags

A malnourished child (Image for representative purpose only) (Photo: IANS)
A malnourished child (Image for representative purpose only) (Photo: IANS)

Jagdish Rattanani

The International Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS) is a prestigious deemed Indian university and a pioneering 63-year-old institution that is known for, among other work, its highly regarded and oft-quoted National Family Health Survey (NFHS) series and attendant reports.

The reports analyse mounds of data under NFHS rounds that have, for the last three decades, provided an independent grassroots view of India’s demographic and health-related information to indicate whether policy is translating to change on the ground.

The IIPS thus works in a significant space, providing crucial data that can hold a mirror to the executive and help drive policy actions in the right direction.

Last week, the director of this valued institution, Prof K.S. James, a noted demographer, researcher and former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) faculty member, was suspended and asked not to leave Mumbai city, where he is headquartered, pending an inquiry.

IIPS faculty and alumni are said to be in shock. The Opposition has criticised the move. Scientists and other faculty members are alarmed. What triggered the suspension is unclear, but those in the know say that the order follows other attempts to oust the director.

James was apparently asked to resign some months back. He reportedly refused, saying he had done nothing wrong and wouldn’t leave for no reason. The suspension raises fears, once again, of a high-handed administration ready to go to any lengths to control institutions and punish those who cannot be reined in.

It is true that this is a suspension pending an inquiry, not punishment already. It is true that the government has a right to investigate on the basis of complaints or information it may have received. However, if inside reports are to be believed, it is equally true that the government wanted the director out.

It if really is a matter of irregularities, then how and why would the director be asked to leave, and an inquiry be launched only when he refused to go quietly?

These questions take on a larger significance when one looks at the work of the IIPS and its role in putting out data relating to demographics and, under the NFHS series, key parameters like reproductive and child health, socio-economic indicators, fertility, maternal and child mortality, under-five mortality rate, nutritional status, immunisation reach, water, sanitation, gender violence and even the spread of modern-day lifestyle diseases like diabetes and blood pressure.

It is the latest release of an NFHS report that told the nation that 19 per cent of Indian households defecate in the open (NFHS-5, for 2019– 2021), an improvement from 39 per cent who were reported practising open defecation (NFHS-4, for 2015–16).

For rural India, NFHS-5 said 26 per cent households still had no access to toilets, and so practised open defecation. This is an improvement in numbers over the years (if you wish to look at it that way) but it nonetheless punctures the prime minister’s sweeping claim that rural India is “open defecation-free” already, as he did assert in 2019 as part of ongoing programmes to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

The contradiction between political claims and on-ground numbers reinforces the significance of a strong IIPS running an independent NFHS and reporting freely and accurately, rather than varnishing the numbers for the authorities to crow over.

Though the IIPS is part of the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW), it is an autonomous institution and has never faced questions on its surveys and findings.

In fact, the NHFS is a survey that has global standing, and works with partners like the ICF of USA, the United States Agency for International Development, Britain’s Department for International Development, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, the UNFPA and the Indian health ministry.

NFHS-5 (2019–21) has other statistics that tell us India is not really doing well. Anaemia, for example, has risen. As many as 67 per cent of children aged six months to five years during NHFS-5 had anaemia (haemoglobin levels below 11.0 g/dl), which is higher than the NFHS-4 (2015–16) estimate of 59 per cent.

Anaemia in children leads to slower growth and impacts neurodevelopment. NHFS-5 reported that 36 per cent of children under the age of five are stunted (too short for their age, a sign of chronic undernutrition). This figure is only marginally changed from 38 per cent seen in NFHS-4.

Similarly, 19 per cent of children under the age of five are wasted (too thin for their height, a sign of acute undernutrition), a figure only slightly down from 21 per cent seen in NHFS-4. Additionally, 32 per cent of children are underweight, down from 36 per cent during NHFS-4.

These numbers, in one sense, point to the challenges that lie before a government that is in a rush to claim success and talk victory in all the battles, schemes and missions it seeks to highlight.

The true story is a little different from the tall claims being made. There is nothing wrong in accepting the truth, fine-tuning policy and prioritising spends to reach the desired targets. Empty boasts ring hollow, sooner rather than later, and show the government in a poor light.

The government cannot build the narrative of an India that is a global giant and a robust economy with children who are anaemic, wasted, stunted and undernourished, India cannot become cleaner with announcements that it is “open defecation-free’.

A more justifiable approach would be to claim full marks for trying. Even if efforts take longer to show results, that will be a journey well-run. It would be good to recall that the rush to announce ‘mission accomplished’, with well-set optics aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier after the Iraq war brought nothing but disaster for the country under President George Bush.

We don’t have to go there. What can keep us honest are independent reports of the kind the IIPS produces. Disturbing such work by suspending the director may therefore not be the best way to proceed with an agenda of development for the people of India.

(Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Courtesy: The Billion Press)

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Published: 09 Aug 2023, 8:10 AM