Category Archives: Campaigns

Counting system losing count

In continuation of a campaign to free public data (and potentially public data), this opinion piece published in Business Standard on 21 Jan 2014. Also see similar advocacy articles on public data across health and natural history. More to follow…

In 1921, laying the foundation for a leading newspaper’s entry into data journalism, its editor C P Scott wrote,Comment is free, facts are sacred“. Over the years, the use of data and analysis has moved much beyond inaccessible research journals to the domain of public policy. Newspapers and media majors in many countries routinely produce data-driven analysis on matters of public policy under the term data journalism. In India, data collected by public authorities are subject to statutory disclosure according to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. One of the largest repositories of public information is

Opinion page on Business Standard

Opinion page on Business Standard

the civil registration system, the system through which we get our certificates of births and deaths. The civil registration system in India begins with the village accountant at the village level, with designated officials at each of the block/taluka and district offices. Entire departments are dedicated to this enterprise at the state level.

In Karnataka, for example, in each of its 30 districts’ zilla panchayat offices, every year, the district statistical officer totals up the births and deaths reported the previous year from all the villages in the district. Certificates of births and deaths issued in villages record vital events. In addition, they also record the probable cause (in the case of deaths) and such information is routinely sent upwards to the district level in paper reporting formats, and collated for annual state level reports of births and deaths. In most of our states, an entire department headed by a chief registrar of births and deaths oversees this massive enterprise.

As a parallel enterprise of creating a unique identity for each Indian citizen is going on, one would imagine that sufficient effort has gone into making use of this elaborate information being collected through this system. Access to the information collected through this system is crucial, for instance, for health planning. It could also contribute to the analysis of health outcomes of disadvantaged communities. Researchers or journalists could use this data to analyse and engage in discussions on public policy and reflect on the impact of policies and reforms in particular districts or regions. Unfortunately, it turns out that such information is not even available to the government themselves, let alone journalists or researchers. At least, the information is not in a format that is usable by them for decision- and policymaking.

Village-level data that come in paper formats are totalled and sent in prescribed formats to the state level, and produced as reports that are published on the websites. In the absence of computerisation or at least, entry of such important data into a database, a district health officer cannot obtain disaggregated data on the types of deaths in a particular block or village, or among people below the poverty line. Officers can only get state-level totals based on the format prescribed under the Act. All other data, though available, are lost in totalling. In response to a campaign using RTI queries, I met with denial of information, not because it was not collected, but because the collected information was lost in a process of completing paperwork prescribed by the births and deaths registration Act, and the bureaucratic procedures of producing annual reports, instead of putting the data out in public domain. In response to a letter I wrote to the registrar general of India, there was a direction to all the chief registrars of states to put in place steps to make this data easily accessible to health care workers and policymakers. Over a year has passed since the letter. The data continue to be collected, aggregated and the effort wasted since no disaggregated data is available to the health system or the public.

It is time to take a moment and ask why we collect information on births and deaths in this elaborate manner. In India, the foundation for the civil registration system was laid by the then colonial British administration following millions of deaths in the Great Indian Famine (1876-78). Subsequently, independent India passed its own Act in 1969, making reporting of births and deaths mandatory. The information collected by the mammoth enterprise ranging from the registrar general of India in Delhi to the village accountant in each of our villages, meticulously record births and deaths. However, the entire system is focused only on producing the reports in the particular format stipulated by the Act. Below that level, all the information is totalled up without any effort for creating a database that can be used by the government itself, if not by researchers or journalists.

Accurate information on causes of death can help build an effective health policy. For instance, routine data from civil registration in the UK contributed in identifying the causal association between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s. Due to the lack of a database of vital statistics based on our civil registration systems, the long-term social, economic, and demographic impact of major diseases in India can only be estimated from statistical models or resource-intensive surveys. Ranging from a lack of awareness among people on one hand, to poor demand from policymakers on the other, many issues plague the Indian civil registration system. However, there appears to be a lack of vision in taking forward our archaic registration system beyond its colonial origins into the information age. We must make the information we collect available in a disaggregated manner, making it available for health care workers, policy makers, journalists and citizens.

Can we count on our counting systems?

A shorter version of this article appeared on BMJ Blogs on October 31, 2013 under the same title.  Co-written with Himabindu G L of IPH, Bangalore.

Much of the material remains unprocessed, or, if processed, unanalysed, or, if analysed, not read, or, if read, not used or acted upon

Robert Chambers

Basic demographic information forms the basis of policy, planning and public

The Registrar General of India promptly responded with this instruction to all states. But since then...

The Registrar General of India promptly responded with this instruction to all states. But since then…

discourse.  The system through which governments record vital events such as births and deaths is the civil registration system. Defined by the United Nations as “the continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal recording of the occurrence and characteristics of vital events”, it forms the basis for identity, citizenship and civil rights. Established perhaps first by Sweden, as early as 1631,  its importance was globally recognised and more countries have worked towards establishment of efficient and comprehensive civil registration systems.


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Update: Apparently, the ayes have it! The Envt. & Forests Ministry’s committee decidees NOT TO go ahead with the proposal!

The Narcondam Horbill, an endangered species of hornbill from the Narcondam Island in the Andaman & Nicobar chain of islands is under threat. A

Sketch of the Narcondam Hornbill (Aceros narcondami)

proposal (a short-sighted one, clearly) to install a RADAR and a power supply source on this 681 hectare island by the Indian ministry of defence could endanger this species of hornbill found nowhere else in the world. Continue reading

“old and fragile records” in an age of RTI and computers: How our heritage collections are managed by ZSI

The Zoological Survey of India has an illustrious history. On 1st July, 1916, the organisation was instituted with a mission to “…to promote survey, exploration

Alfred Alcock, the physician-naturalist who was instrumental in the creation of the Zoological Survey of India

and research leading to the advancement in our knowledge of various aspects of exceptionally rich life of the erstwhile British Indian Empire” (Emphasis mine). Alfred William Alcock was a British physician-naturalist, a common breed in those colonial days when doctors were still excited about working in “difficult” Continue reading

Justice not so blind in Chhatisgarh

It is a shameful day in the history of Indian judiciary, when a doctor who stood as a voice for the poor, oppressed and marginalised is polished off in the most unceremonious way to a life in the prison. What is on trial is indeed justice itself in this case. Over the last few years, my feelings went from indifference (here was a doctor and an acclaimed activist; not so easy to foist cases on him, I (foolishly) thought), to shock, dismay and exasperation. I wonder what it is about such cases that holds back many people like me who are inspired by the work of Binayak. What prevents me from protesting loudly against such travesty of human rights? What prevents young civil activists from challenging democratic institutions? After all, it is the trust in these institutions that keeps us all together in spite of differences in opinions. And today, that trust was broken, a court in Chhattisgarh went to the frontiers of common sense and civil justice and romanced with foolishness in rewarding Binayak Sen with a life in jail for a life of service. Shame to you Justice Verma. Shame to you….

We cannot stay silent. Do your bit – raise your voice, write letters, support campaigns and make the ones in high places aware that they cannot sit quiet. Sign the online pettition or write to the president, as these people did. Write in your local languages and local press and spread the message.

A recent photo of Binayak Sen: Courtesy NDTV

Reproduced below is the statement of Jana Arogya Andolana from Karnataka.

We, the Jana Arogya Andolana Karnataka (JAAK), the Karnataka chapter of the People’s Health Movement, which is a coalition of Karnataka State level networks, organizations and persons actively working for health rights in the State, express our outrage at the verdict of the Raipur district and sessions court judgement declaring Dr Binayak Sen guilty of criminal conspiracy of sedition. Dr Sen has an illustrious record of over 25 years of selfless public service in areas of health and human rights. He has been the General Secretary of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Vice-President of the National PUCL and has contributed to the democratic movement in the country. He has been closely associated with the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the Indian chapter of the People’s Health Movement.In recognition of his work, the Christian Medical College, Vellore conferred on him the Paul Harrison Award in 2004, which is the highest award given to an alumnus for distinguished service in rural areas. He continues to be an inspiration to successive generations of students and faculty. Many of his articles based on his work have been internationally appreciated. His indictment under the draconian and undemocratic Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 and the sentence of life imprisonment is utterly condemnable. Not only has the farcical nature of the trial been reported in the media, the charges against Dr Sen, of engaging in anti-national activities, have been widely held as baseless.This judgment is an unacceptable attempt to intimidate and vilify those who advocate for the rights of the poor and the marginalized, and reveals the indiscriminate use of state machinery to stifle democratic dissent.

JAAK believes that a great derailment of justice has been done, not only to Dr Sen but also to the democratic fabric of this country. We consider this as a typical case where the judiciary has betrayed the cause of the poor and the marginalized of this country. JAAK salutes Dr. Sen’s work, and also demands that the unjust and erroneous judgement be reviewed immediately.