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Govt Hires ORF to Make New Democracy Ratings Index After Downgrading by Global Groups: Report

The Wire Staff
Mar 22, 2024
The Observer Research Foundation, which works closely with the Indian government on multiple initiatives, is preparing the ratings framework, people familiar with the matter told 'Al Jazeera'.

New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has approached a major India think tank to develop its own democracy ratings index to help it counter recent downgrades in ratings and severe criticisms by international groups, Al Jazeera reported.

The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), which works closely with the Indian government on multiple initiatives, is preparing the ratings framework, two people closely involved in the discussions on the project told correspondent Anisha Dutta.

“A review meeting was held by NITI Aayog in January, and it was decided that ORF will be releasing Democracy Rankings in a few weeks,” a top government official said, requesting anonymity.

The new rankings system could be released soon, the official said.

“The Democracy Index being prepared by ORF went through a peer review process and expert analysis on the methodology a few weeks ago … it is likely to be released soon,” a second source familiar with the development told Al Jazeera.

The NITI Aayog, the government’s internal public policy think tank responsible for carrying out discussions within the Modi government regarding global rankings, said that it was not directly involved in creating the index.

However, per Al Jazeera, they neither confirmed nor denied their involvement in assisting an external think tank in its preparation.

A spokesperson for NITI Aayog told Al Jazeera, “NITI is not in the process of developing any Democracy Index. “The government of India monitors select global indices [by various global entities] to drive reforms and growth in the country.”

“Yet emails and the minutes of meetings held between government agencies over the past three years, accessed and reviewed by Al Jazeera, point to a growing urgency within the Modi administration on challenging setbacks to India’s democracy credentials, including through a report prepared by India,” said the report.

Declining press freedom

According to Al Jazeera, this exercise started in 2021 after Freedom House, a US-based government-funded NGO, downgraded India’s status from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’. It attributed the downgrade to “a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters”.

The V-Dem Institute, based in Sweden, also classified India as an “electoral autocracy” in 2021. In its 2023 report, it downgraded India further, classifying the country as “one of the worst autocratisers in the last 10 years.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked India 53rd in its 2020 Democracy Index, labelling it a “flawed democracy”, citing factors such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens and the reading down of special status in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 2021, top officials from the central government ministries and departments such as home affairs, external affairs and the legislative departments, among others, were instructed by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba to monitor India’s performance in democracy indices and identify areas where the country’s standing had declined, Al Jazeera reported.

The Indian government began monitoring its performance in 30 global indices, with different ministries tasked with tracking individual ratings.

For instance, the legislative department under the Ministry of Law and Justice was assigned the EIU’s Democracy Index to watch. The NITI Aayog was asked to create a dashboard for monitoring data across all the indices, it added.

In 2021, the law ministry turned to India’s High Commission in London to seek details from the EIU on its assessment of India. However, EIU refused to give details to the government, Hindustan Times reported.

Simon Baptist, chief economist at EIU, even tweeted saying, “For obvious reasons, we don’t check our scores with governments before release! We come up with our own independent assessment.”

This clearly indicates the Indian government’s concern about its declining democracy rankings.

Watch | Tamasha Around Ram Temple Should Worry Indians Who Believe in Democracy, Pluralism: Ram Guha

Controlling the data narrative

This wouldn’t be the first instance when the government has tried to control the data narrative. Meanwhile, misleading claims made based on data is a separate issue.

Independent data journalist Pramit Bhattacharya, in his paper titled India’s statistical system: past, present and future, highlighted well-known problems with Indian statistics. These include a “perceived lack of independence of the National Statistical Organisation, instances of government wanting to control the data narrative, conflict between the MOSPI (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation) and various arms of government hurting quality and importance of statisticians at the central and state level, and the lack of financial and human resources.”

Rathin Roy, a senior fellow at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, told CNBC-TV18’s Latha Venkatesh that despite bureaucratic squabbles that took place between 1950s and 1980s, the government had a stake in the statistical system because it needed that information to be able to plan forward. Now the government does not need it, and that is the major reason for the system being in decline.

Also read: The Hollowness of the Modi Government’s Tall Claims and Self-Praise on Economy

Bad data

This story refocusses attention on another issue: bad data, or a misleading analysis of data.

Take for instance, the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data, for July 2022 to June 2023, emphasised that India’s unemployment rate for individuals aged 15 and above reached a six-year low. However, a detailed look at the numbers showed that a significant number of individuals in India are engaging in self-employment or unpaid labour.

In fact, the only jobs that are getting created are of the “self-employment” type. When an economy grows, businesses employ people. When an economy struggles, people lose their regular jobs, and become “self-employed”, the Indian Express said while analysing the data.

Development economist Santosh Mehrotra, along with other economists, has said that NITI Aayog’s claim on poverty reduction distorts the truth.

“How can poverty have fallen when job growth and real wages have come down? Nearly 190 million workers (2021-22) in India are earning just up to Rs 100 per day (in real terms at 2010 prices) which can be categorised as absolutely poor, as compared to just 106.1 million workers in 2011-12. Similarly, nearly 144 million workers are earning between Rs 100 and Rs 200 in 2021-22. This indicates the need for interrogating labour market conditions in India, before jumping to the conclusion that India has been able to end poverty,” he told Business Standard.

The Household Consumption Expenditure Survey of 2022-23 – released after more than a decade – is not comparable with previous rounds on account of a change in methodology.

The HCES 2022-23 report clearly points out “issues related to comparability” and states that “HCES: 2022-23 has undergone some changes as compared to the previous surveys on consumption expenditures” and should not be compared with the earlier CES rounds.

Meanwhile, the census exercise continues to be on hold.

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