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Data Vacuum

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The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how dependent societies the world over are on their governments. The government is expected to intervene and provide solutions to almost everything when things go wrong. In
normal times, however, people’s tendency is to undercut state power, even when it comes to simply contributing through payment of taxes. In fact, it is obvious that the best performing governments are those that have the maximum number of people paying income tax – it creates a sense of shareholding. In that context, India
ranks amongst the worst in the world. Ways and means are found even to evade indirect taxes, which is why so much of the economy has existed in what is euphemistically described as the ‘informal sector’. And, ironically, Indians are among the most vociferous about how government spends ‘their’ tax money.

And, since the flow of money remains largely uncharted, the all important data government requires to craft policies and take decisions is unavailable. When there is a crisis, as in the present case, it is those in the ‘informal sector’ that are most affected. Everybody knows that at the bottom of the pyramid are migrant and casual labourers, but how weak their financial
condition actually is has become visibly clear only now. They were unable to survive even a few days on being cut off from work. They could not command even a bit of credit from local shopkeepers or their landlords. Sadly, however, it is the very people who claim to conduct politics on their behalf that most resist the government’s efforts to begin reform by obtaining essential data.

The US has been able to transfer funds to all those who claimed unemployed status due to the corona lockdown. India does not even know how many are employed and by whom. Universal social welfare such as pensions, health care, etc., is not possible to implement without something like a national register of workers. Archaic means are used to identify the beneficiaries, such as BPL ration cards, which are granted largely on the basis of political affiliations. This is why genuine citizens can remain excluded – particularly if they are migrants from other states – while illegal immigrants can take the benefits because they have been ‘legitimised’ for the sake of votes.

India can no longer afford to remain outside the information age. Nothing is possible today without data – even the treatment of COVID-19. Hopefully, when the present crisis gets over, the effort to obtain this data is pursued with renewed vigour. It will prepare us better for the next crisis, whatever it is.