On matters of life and death, such as the coronavirus pandemic, it is important that data be in the public domain
Information is power. We rely on numbers to allocate resources and make crucial decisions. But what do we do when the numbers go missing? What do gaps in data reveal? These questions go to the heart of social and political battles raging in India today. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, no data means no justice for the uncounted dead, nor to their families.
India has over 5.8 million confirmed coronavirus cases -- the world’s second worst case load after the United States. Official estimates show it has already killed over 91,000 Indians.
Who among the dead remain invisible as we are simply not counting them? As the pandemic rages, that question exposes our faultlines and remains the story to watch because it pivots around inclusion-exclusion in official data.
In May, 16 migrant labourers who were trying to get back home to Madhya Pradesh on foot were killed when a freight train ran over them between Jalna and Aurangabad districts in Maharashtra. The same month, a video clip which went viral showed a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother at a railway platform in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. In what must be one of the most poignant visuals of the pandemic, the child is seen tugging at a sheet covering his mother’s body. The woman, 35-year-old Avreena Khatoon, died while travelling in the Ahmedabad-Katihar (Bihar) Shramik Special train.
News reports, quoting family members, said the woman had died of hunger, thirst and severe heat while travelling for four days. The Muzaffarpur district administration, as well as the Railways, say that she died because of a pre-existing ailment.
The heartbreak of these unforgettable images and that of many other reported instances of migrant deaths can’t be captured in a phrase or in a statistic.
But numbers matter in gauging the magnitude of the tragedy and in determining compensation for the families of the dead. Even if we concede that all migrants did not die of hunger, the fact is that they died. We don’t have an official number of how many of them died in all. This invisibility in official statistics, whether alive or dead, lies at the core of the vulnerability of these informal workers.
It’s not that the government doesn’t furnish any data. It has told us, for example, that the Indian Railways operated over 4,611 Shramik Special trains for the convenience of workers, that over 63.07 lakh guest workers have been shifted to various destinations in Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and other states, that it had arranged to provide food and water to the workers during their journey.
But the Union Labour Ministry also recently told Parliament there is no data on migrant deaths so the “question doesn’t arise” of compensation. This was in response to a question relating to compensation for families of those who had lost their lives while trying to reach home in the wake of the nationwide lockdown imposed by the government to contain the pandemic’s spread.
The government's written response in the Lok Sabha on the first day of the monsoon session on the numbers it has, and the numbers it chooses to be silent about, has triggered a charged debate.
The Railway Ministry subsequently told the Lok Sabha that 97 people had died on board Shramik Specials, conceding perhaps for the first time that guest workers had died on the trains taking them to their villages and home towns during the lockdown.
Meanwhile, a public database maintained voluntarily by an independent technologist and scholars, including from Jindal Global Law School, Emory University and Syracuse University, point to at least 972 deaths among guest workers till July 4 during the various lockdowns across the country.
Rajendran Narayanan, who teaches at Bengaluru’s Azim Premji University, and is associated with Stranded Workers Action Network (Swan), which has been following these issues, says the argument of “no data” touches on the critical issue of accountability. He argues that even if the government didn’t have its own figures for the deaths during the lockdown, it had access to estimates by volunteer networks and researchers who were closely following the issue. Narayanan says Swan’s data was shared with the Home Ministry, the National Disaster Management Authority and other government agencies.
Why did the government not follow these leads?
Equally puzzling is the government’s response to a question in Parliament on Covid-19 related fatalities among the country’s health workers. Asked about the number of healthcare staff, including doctors, nurses, support staff and Asha workers who have been affected by and died from Covid-19, the Health Ministry said: “Health is a state subject. Such data is not maintained at the Central level by the ministry of health and family welfare.”
A government that has repeatedly lauded doctors and other health workers as “Covid warriors” says it has no data of the frontline health workers who have fallen prey to the virus.
The Indian Medical Association is furious and has released a list of 382 doctors who have already died due to the coronavirus. The doctors’ body has demanded that the dead medicos be treated as “martyrs”. The IMA said: “If the government doesn’t maintain the statistics of the total number of doctors and healthcare workers infected by Covid-19 and the statistics of how many of them sacrificed their life due to the pandemic, it loses the moral authority to administer the Epidemic Act 1897 and the Disaster Management Act.”
Asked in Parliament whether the Union government maintains data on the number of safai karmacharis who have died due to safety hazards related to their work of cleaning hospitals and handling medical waste during the coronavirus pandemic, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said: “Hospitals and dispensaries being a state subject, no data is maintained by the Union government” on the issue.
These are just three of the lists that the government says it does not have and where its position pivots around “no data”. This is by no means comprehensive. The “no data” argument extends to many other areas where there has been no action or scant action.
Should this be an acceptable answer? Data is a public good. What we are not tracking is easily forgotten and turned invisible. In this pandemic, it has become a matter of life and death.
It is critical that we now talk about data justice, which means data that needs to be in the public domain in public interest, for better accountability and inclusion.