Making Sure Disability Counts
on Cowboys and Indians (India), 08/Feb/2011 06:47, 34 days ago
Ever tried counting to a billion? India is attempting it this month as it rolls out its 2011 census, the first since 2001.“Never before have we tried an exercise of this scale,” said Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s Home Minister. “In fact, nowhere in the world has a government tried to count, identify and issue identity cards to more than a billion population. This is the biggest exercise, I believe, since humankind came into existence.”As an indicator of what a mammoth task this is, there are two and a half million‘enumerators’ fanning out across the country this month to collect the statistics in person. There are a good fifty countries in the world that don’t even have that many citizens in total, or to put it another way, there are eight times more civil servants working on this thing than there arepeople in Iceland. That is, as they say, a lot.It’s a remarkable operation designed with the best of intentions. As the CensusCommissioner C. Chandramouli put it:“The census is a means of evaluating once in every 10 years, in a dispassionate manner, whether government programmes are reaching their intended target and plan for the future.” I hope he’s right, but it’sworth bearing in mind a truism that has been repeated since the 19thCentury - that there are three types of falsehoods: lies, damn lies and statistics.One person who shares my concern about the mendacious nature of seemingly authoritative facts and figures is Ajit Kumar Behera of Swabhiman, the Odisha State Disability Network. He believes that there was a huge discrepancy in the number of disabled people counted in the census figures of 2001 which led in turn to severe underfunding.According to those figures, around 2% of the Indian population is disabled. To put that in context, the UK census put the number of disabled people ataround 17% of the total population, which is roughly the same as the USA and Canada. The World Bank linkheregoes some way to explaining why these numbers seem so far apart,and suggests that“a worldwide estimate of about a 10-12% rate of disability seems reasonable.”Behera agrees with this estimate, and says it chimes more accurately with his experiences in the field than the official figure of 2%. So what happened to all the disabled people who weren’t counted?The simplified version of Behera’s answer goes like this: if there were ten people with hearing problems, but the government only had two hearing aids to give out, then only two people could be given them. When the census was conducted, only the two people with hearing aids were counted as having hearing problems, so eight became ‘invisible’. The government then uses its own census data to decide that next time around it only needs to provide enough resources for two people with hearing problems, and so the cycle continues.The 2011 census represents a once in a decade opportunity to affect the way that the Indian state allocates resources, which is why Behera is campaigning hard to raise awareness of the importance of identifying disabled people correctly on the census.I recently visited Nayanamate, a 17 year old who was born with both cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy and who lives in Bariguda, a small tribal village made up of fewer than 70 houses in a rural area of Orissa. It is physically and psychologically a long way from Delhi, and her mother and grandmother told me of how remote they feel from the support of the Indian government. In making such gigantic strides to count and identify their citizens, India should also be taking a small but important step towards understanding who in the population needs their help most. That’s what really counts.