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NDA: No Data Available

Obliterating records or taking them out of context and give them altogether a new spin has been the pattern we have been seeing for the last six years.

An interesting cartoon by Remicscomics was circulated by the Congress Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor on September 22 and he added, “No #data on migrant workers, no data on farmer suicides, wrong data on fiscal stimulus, dubious data on #Covid deaths, cloudy data on GDP growth – this Government gives a whole new meaning to the term #NDA.”
This sums up the current Parliament session which the ruling party has been accused of conducting in the most undemocratic manner. On the one hand, they passed bills in the Rajya Sabha using a voice vote, while we saw how nonchalantly the government has denied having data on migrant labourers who died during the Covid-19 exodus and later, denied having data on farmer suicides.

 

 

 

Hitting below the belt

In what could be described as most undemocratic gagging, the BJP-led government passed the farm reforms bill in the Rajya Sabha, using a voice vote, which the Opposition said, was conducted by breaking the rules. Angered, the members of Parliament protested and eight of them from the Opposition were suspended. This entire drama is a repeat of what we have witnessed in Maharashtra previously. In exactly the same manner, Devendra Fadnavis had ensured he became the Chief Minister in 2014.

 

On the day of the vote, Fadnavis resorted to a voice vote and was supported by the Nationalist Congress Party. This crucial voice vote helped Fadnavis and the 13-day government led by the BJP win the majority with just an ‘aye’ from the legislators. Obviously, the miffed Shiv Sena, which was part of the alliance, termed it as ‘strangling democracy’.  On September 21, in Parliament, it was the same story.

 

 

Chaos in Rajya Sabha on Sunday during Voice Vote. (Source: Web)
This lethal hitting-below-the-belt strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party is an old one, especially when they want to assert themselves. In this case, the Union Government wanted to bring in the farm reforms immediately. The gagging of voices, however, could not hide the fact that the government had done away with enlisting the causes of farmer suicides. G Kishan Reddy, the Minister of State for Home Affairs stated on the Parliament floor on September 21, informed the Parliament that the National Crime Records Bureau said, “Many States and Union Territories had reported ‘Nil’ data on suicides by farmers/cultivators and agricultural labourers after several validations, even after reporting suicides in other professionals.” This obviously created a furore, that after admitting to having no records of the deaths of migrant workers, the government admits to having no records of suicides by farmers.

Obliterating records

The games the government has been playing with the masses, one tends to equate with the hide and seek games we played during our childhood. However, not being found was more innocent than concealment of the truth, which is largely prevalent in our society.
Interestingly, most people beyond Maharashtra and Gujarat don’t know that the obliteration of the ‘farmer suicides’ section in the NCRB is scripted on the famous Gujarat model. In fact, in 2014, prior to the assembly elections in Maharashtra, Congress leader Sachin Sawant had exposed the ‘lies’ of the BJP government. In April 2014, the then national treasurer of the BJP, Piyush Goyal, had said prior to the Maharashtra state elections, there was not a single case of a farmer committing suicide in Gujarat. In fact, in 2013, the number of farmer suicides in Maharashtra had reduced to 3,146, while in 2012, 3,786 suicides had been registered by the NCRB.
A farmer sitting in his drought-hit land. (Source: Web)

 

However, Sawant had pointed out how the Modi government was concealing the data for Gujarat even from the Central government. Moreover, during the Fadnavis government’s rule, in 2014 alone, more than 60,000 suicides were recorded, with an average of 160 suicides every day. This was just the beginning of replicating the ‘Gujarat model’ with the NCRB, to hide the failure of the BJP governments in various states. Or better still, to obliterate records that could show the government in a poor light. Officials, as well as ministers too, had been issued instructions not to leak information to the media at large.

 

Ward off media

This aspect of data concealment is not new; one could say, right at the beginning of this Parliament session, we all witnessed the lies told to citizens. In fact, after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the entire country witnessed the heartbreaking scenes of the migrant workers’ exodus to their homes, trying to escape dying of hunger in the cities. This was a poignant moment for Indians, as the Union Government failed the labourers, completely forgetting them when it announced the national lockdown in March. Yet the government claimed it had no records.  Worse was the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, who, when presenting the country’s budget on February 1, had tried to outline the importance of data saying, “Data is the new oil”.
FM Nirmala Sitharaman with MoS Anurag Thakur on way to parliament during the budget session. (Source: Web)
The fact is: Hiding data is not a new phenomenon with this Government. Obliterating records or taking them out of context and give them altogether a new spin has been the pattern we have been seeing for the last six years. Speaking specifically of the Covid-19 pandemic, the outbreak started at the end of January, but of course, our government was busy serenading the American President on his official tour of India. This first case record was hidden and as the virus began spreading, we have seen deliberate attempts made even by doctors to conceal facts and not make the data public on a daily basis.
At that time, the Congress party had accused the government of hiding data on our economy and poverty. For the first time in 40 years, the country’s consumption levels fell to an all-time low and the opposition had demanded the ruling government call an all-party meeting to discuss the issues and find solutions. But going by the developments in the last six years, this basic democratic process of discussion, debate and finding consensus finds no place with the current government. A totalitarian state is what critics of the government call the way in which decisions are being taken and the complete lack of transparency in sharing information or bringing out new policies.
migrant woman
A migrant worker with her child waiting for a bus during the lockdown. (Source: Web)

 

 

This tendency to hide facts and data on coronavirus is not restricted to India alone. Journalists are being barred from speaking to hospitals and getting data on the pandemic in many countries. In America, journalists are being barred, as were students of the University of Florida, from accessing the information on how they are being protected from Covid-19. In the Philippines, journalists have been threatened with prison time if they do so. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists is tracking the arrests of reporters over coronavirus coverage in India, Venezuela, Niger and other places around the world.

 

High courts lead the way

There still is some hope from the high courts in the non-BJP ruled states, as they seem to be asking their governments and agencies to fall in line regarding sharing of information with the media. However such is not the case with the Supreme Court. On September 22, the Government of India asked the Supreme Court to legalise censorship. Although the apex court opted not to institute any censorship, it accepted the government’s version that the exodus of migrant workers was caused due to fake news.

 

The fact is, right from prior to the national lockdown on March 24, we have been seeing the immense trust issues the public has with the government. Right from hoarding essentials, to the exodus of migrant workers, the people do not trust the government. Worse still, the government has stonewalled journalists and their any attempts to access information on coronavirus. The Telangana High Court had, on June 8, pulled up the government of that state for hiding important information from the citizens. The petitioner said there needed to be clarity on the information given in the daily health bulletin and that the court needed to direct the state to include information on tests conducted on asymptomatic patients.

 

 

Bombay High Court Judge Gautam Patel. (Source: Web)

 

 

Meanwhile, even Justice Gautam Patel of the Bombay High Court, in a videoconference hearing, was told by an advocate during hearing a bunch of commercial arbitration, informed the court his clients had submitted some material in a sealed cover. Justice Patel made it clear to the parties, “At least in my courts, there is no question – and there will never be a question – of anything being done ‘in sealed cover’. After the advocate aired the apprehensions of his client that the material would reach the press, the judge made it abundantly clear that he would not gag the media.

 

Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.

(Views Expressed Are Personal) 

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