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How Global Indices Get It Completely Wrong When It Comes To India

For years now, India’s socio-economic indicators, especially the ones pertaining to women and children, have been measured using the global standards.

The findings, arrived at through the deployment of faulty benchmarks, present an incorrect and incomplete picture of the ground situation, and the ongoing transformation.

These findings do add to the lopsided view held by many organisations and media groups, across the world, about India. However, how accurate are these global indices in the larger scheme of things? A recently published paper by Sanjeev Sanyal, Aakanksha Arora, and Srishti Chauhan debunks the myth behind global benchmarks, and explains how, in the Indian context, they are futile.

Using the three-widely used, studied, and cited indicators; childhood stunting, female labour force participation rate (FLFPR), and life expectancy at birth, the authors explain how, despite a per capita income rise in India, offer a socio-economic picture that is not aligned with the realities of the ground.

The Problem Of Overestimated Childhood Stunting In children, stunting, to put simply, is defined as ‘low height for age’, and it indicates malnutrition. In India, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) uses the global benchmark established by the World Health Organisation to estimate stunting.

As per the NFHS, for 2019-21, in the age group of 0-5 years, the stunting percentage is around 35.5 (rural 37.3 per cent and urban 30.1 per cent). While it is significantly lower than 48 per cent registered in 2005-06, the estimation is based on an incorrectly derived benchmark by the WHO.

The WHO, through the Multicentre Growth Reference Study (MGRS), done between 1997-2003, arrived at the benchmark used by the NFHS today.

The sample for the study included 1,743 infants (aged 0-24 months) and 6,697 children (aged 18-71 months).

The study evaluated children from six countries; India (South Delhi), Oman (Muscat), Ghana (Accra), Brazil (Pelotas), Norway (Oslo), and US (Davis). Using these samples, the WHO arrived at a global benchmark range that was to be deployed to estimate childhood growth, around the world.

The devil was in the details, however. Indians, coming from the affluent neighbourhood of South Delhi, along with Omanis, were shorter than Ghanians, Brazilians, and Norwegians.

Thus, children sampled from India, even from one of the poshest areas of the country, where shorter in height when compared to their peers in the study.

Therefore, the global benchmark was overestimating stunting in India, a fact acknowledged by several medical professionals in India, and the data derived from the indigenous researches proved so.

For instance, for 2015-16, an indigenous benchmark deployed estimated the stunting percentage at 27-odd, far lower than 38.4 per cent registered using the WHO benchmark.

Another study, published recently, estimated the stunting for 2019-21 at 24 per cent against 35 per cent concluded through WHO benchmarks.

For individual states, the difference in the estimation was as much as 10 percentage points for Bihar, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh on the lower side.

Where Is India’s Female Workforce? The International Labour Organisation is responsible for the estimation of female labour force participation rate (FLFPR).

However, the ILO estimates, for years, now have been lower than the national estimates. For instance, the difference between the ILO and national estimates is almost ten percentage points for 2019.

In its definition, ILO defines FLFPR as the total number of women (both employed and unemployed), as a percentage of the working age population (above 15 years of age). For 2022, India’s FLFPR stands at 24 per cent.

India’s own estimates do not do justice to the existing female workforce. For instance, the periodic labour force survey (PLFS), carried out by India’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, estimates the FLFPR at 32.5 per cent for 2020-2021.

That is not an entirely accurate picture, as also pointed out in the Economic Survey of 2022-23. The problem with PLFS is that it categorises women indulging in domestic work (collecting vegetables, firewood, cattle feed, etc) as out of labour force, thus lowering the percentage.

However, even the estimations published by the ILO, for developing economies, factor in the domestic work, household occupations, and other farming activities.

Therefore, countries like Tanzania and Kenya have an FLFPR in excess of 70 per cent. In India, if the PLFS was corrected to include the women who are domestic workers or contribute to the farming activities, the FLFPR would be in excess of 46 per cent from the current 32-odd per cent.

The problem with incorrect estimates is that they are then cited in other reports, like one on Global Gender Gap.

Lowering Life Expectancy In India Life expectancy at birth is estimated by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, falling under the Population Division. For India, for 2019, the estimate was around 71 years, which was reduced to 67.2 years in 2021. The methodology behind the decrease is where the problem lies. As per the WHO, excess mortality was factored in for the period between 2020 and 2021, and hence the sharp cut. The WHO estimated close to 4.7 million deaths in India, almost five times the number seen in the US.

Beyond absolute terms, in terms of total deaths (cumulative+excess) per 100,000 people, India’s count was 375.8 while that of Brazil was 645.4, 606.7 for the United States, 587.7 for Italy, 529.8 for the United Kingdom, and 435.23 for Germany. Yet, WHO’s faulty estimation projected highest decrease in life expectancy in India (5.18 per cent) against Brazil (3.44 per cent), US (2.45 per cent), UK (1.20 per cent), Germany (1.14 per cent), and Italy (0.84 per cent). Clearly, selective data bias at play here.

The Need For An Overhaul There are three major problems that arise due to the deployment of faulty benchmarks and results. One, the observations are cited in several reports that present a negative view of the country, despite all the progress made, and hamper investment prospects too, given companies tend to rely on such reports for their decisions.

Two, there is no visible counter to faulty benchmarks, for instance the one used for childhood stunting, given these global organisations have their biases and also operate with ambiguity when it comes to data collection.

Three, and most importantly, there has not been enough visible effort by the data observers, statistical agencies, and other important arms of the government when it comes to measuring the socio-economic progress on the ground using localised benchmarks.

Assuming there were such annual publications, the global organisations would be forced to withdraw their faulty findings.

Also, in the longer run, by virtue of its unique social structure and economic position, it would be in India’s best interest to cultivate indigenous data collection and evaluation agencies.


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