Whole Numbers and Half Truths by Rukmini S
It is no mean task to characterize India. A country of many many people, and equally many perspectives, narratives and opinions, India is often confusing and overwhelming to understand, let alone describe. In her book Whole Numbers and Half Truths, award-winning data journalist Rukmini S takes an innovative approach, and uses careful and extensive descriptive data analysis to show readers a picture of India that is unconventional. Starting with India’s crime statistics, all the way to the health of Indians - the book has answers to them all. Some are deep and complicated -and grapple with issues like what values India holds dear, how India votes, and how unequal India is, while others are lighter like what India eats and how Indians spend their free time - but all are incredibly important to understanding what India truly is.
The book’s approach is novel and incredibly refreshing peppered with anecdotes from the author’s extensive field reporting The book does a fantastic job of accomplishing what it identifies as a pressing need which is to make numbers intelligible and interesting. As the author states “Part of the problem is that statistics can be unintelligible, out of date, hard to find and harder still to communicate. But the other part is that statistics alone don’t tell us everything. They need context, interpretation that’s free from ideological spin and to be held up to the light.” The author’s experience as a field and data journalist combines two unique perspectives and talents, and gives the book the dual advantage of being extremely analytical and clear, while also holding on to the human-ness of the questions it concerns itself with.
In a thorough fulfillment of what it sets out to do - the book shows us what data can and cannot tell us about modern India. In chapter one the book talks about crime data and how current data reporting policies with the multiple realities that affect crime reporting might be masking the true nature of crime in the country. Next, it shows us that contrary to popular belief, India is fairly conservative, and that young India might be especially so. In a particularly interesting chapter on how India votes, the author busts the myth that India votes for ‘development’ and shows that identity and ideology both play a crucial role in voters’ decision matrices. This chapter reveals that contrary to the common perception that the Congress appeals to a Muslim ‘vote-bank’, “..if there is a truly loyal vote-bank in India, it is the BJP’s upper-caste Hindu vote bank.” Importantly, this chapter also tells us what the current opinion poll data and common practices miss out on and provides a clear tool-kit for what needs to change for more sound analysis to emerge in the future.
In what is possibly my favorite chapter in the book, the author shows us how Indians love and marry, what they eat and how they spend their time. These might seem like simple questions and trivial statistics, but they create an extremely interesting picture of the day-to-day in India that has never been so coherently painted before. India is not predominantly vegetarian, continues to be deeply religious for the most part, and your caste and class can determine how much time you get to ‘enjoy’. Upper caste men and women have the most time for leisure and self-care, and all women spend a large share of their time on unpaid tasks. Marriage, while being nearly universal, still looks the same for Indian youth as it did for their grandparents. It continues to be arranged for the most part and caste is possibly the most important attribute that is considered when marriages are arranged.
The book bears on crucial and at times polarizing debates, showing us that we haven’t done a good job of identifying the poor, and that the existence of a middle-class is possibly one of the most widely-accepted myths in the country. It also highlights that the “Great Indian Dream is not one of equal opportunity,” and caste and class affect how opportunities and wealth are distributed. Despite what upper caste Indians believe, quotas do help in improving outcomes, but as the author says “facts sometimes don’t come in the way of feelings, in this case, the feeling of victimhood.” The book can at times end up leaving you with a feeling of hopelessness and concern – India is conservative and becoming increasingly polarized, facing an unemployment crisis, doing injustice to its unborn girls, and losing out on the opportunity to make the most of its predominantly young, but fast aging population. But it also tells us some remarkable and positive facts such as the rapid decline in fertility rates and Muslim womens’ role in scripting this success story.
Another important theme the author discusses throughout the book and primarily in the chapter How India Spends Its Money is the urgent need to do both more and better data collection and analysis. The author walks the reader through the history and current status of India’s statistical infrastructure succinctly. She makes valuable comparisons between household survey data and administrative data, discusses issues around data suppression by the current government that deserve a lot more collective concern and attention and makes a cogent case for doing larger and better household surveys. As she very compellingly states in this chapter – “When people ask me about official data, the fear of most is that it is ‘fake’ or ‘fudged’- falsified. [...] It is not falsification that is worrying. It’s neglect, discredit, and ultimately, dismissal.”
Whole Numbers and Half Truths is not only a very interesting read, it’s a very important and timely piece of scholarship that serves many purposes. First, it tells us crucial things about India that are based on a detailed analysis of data, and in doing so, is one of the first comprehensive data-backed pictures of the country that is available to us. Second, it builds a clear case that more needs to be done to allow such data-driven analyses to emerge, and tells us exactly what needs to be done and how. Third, it pushes us to place data front and center in conversations about India. In our homes, trains, buses and offices - when we talk about India and its people, I hope we do so after having read this book, and understanding that the numbers show a picture of India that is likely different from the one we think we know. There is much to be learned from the book, and much more to be done to go along the path it lays out for the future.