Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern IndiaRukmini S
324 pages|₹ 699
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Who are we as Indians? What do we eat, earn, who do we vote for? Rukmini S brings together numerous facts, compelling insights, and important fundamentals about India in her important book, Whole Numbers and Half Truths.
As a chronicler of our times, Rukmini gathers a range of data and weaves in related evidence to create her narrative. Harnessing the power of data, she showcases that India has plenty of it, while also demystifying it. As a veteran data journalist, she points to the challenges of accurate measurement and representativeness. She makes a strong case for collecting and using more and better official data, while always being discerning users of information.
The book exposes India’s “illiberal” values, though Indians often want to be seen differently. Despite growing urbanisation and a sizeable young population, more than 90 per cent of Indians have arranged marriages, the majority of Indian women practice ghunghat or purdah, and Indian men are globally among the last to experience sex. Related to this, those in their twenties and teens are more likely than older people to say that inter-religious marriage is unacceptable. Large majorities, across religions, say it’s important to stop women from their religion from marrying outside, and two out of five women have no say in their marriage. The book describes in detail Indians’ perceptions and experience of caste, religion, gender, and discrimination. It showcases how our laws, their application, and recent changes to them, have been often used to criminalise transgressions from deeply entrenched social norms.
The book illustrates India’s deeply unequal distributions and limited mobility. Rukmini highlights that only four per cent of Indians pay income tax, and the majority live on very little. In rural India, just 10 per cent of households have a salaried worker or own a refrigerator, and anyone in urban India who spends more than Rs8,500 per month would be in the top five per cent of the country. Yet, the majority of the elite think they are “middle class”. Decision-makers and those who shape opinions are often out of touch with the reality of India, and this lack of self-awareness creates a dissonance. These gaps open the space to wilfully create and propagate false narratives.
Rukmini also highlights the challenges of the data. Despite a rich statistical legacy, where detailed information is collected on a range of issues, India does not have up-to-date and accessible official data on income, food security, or Covid-19 deaths. Rukmini lays out the challenges of collecting this data. For example, more than half of Indian households earn from multiple and fluctuating sources; women’s occasional and unpaid economic work is hard to measure; and less than one of four officially registered deaths are medically certified. But what Rukmini illuminates is that often, when the insights are inconvenient, the data is undermined or ignored by officials, even during a pandemic.
The book enlightens on many fronts, given the author’s subject expertise and genuine empathy. In some places the data that Rukmini uses is dated; given the volume of material included and the ambition of the book, an index would have helped; and there is still more data that could have been included.
In her book readings, Rukmini often is asked to speak of Nitin from Satara, whose story resonates with many readers. Living in Mumbai, Nitin is in an inter-caste relationship. He is pained that his girlfriend’s family is not aware that she is seeing a Dalit boy. When Rukmini shares the data with him, to contextualise this couple’s unusual situation, his response is, “That’s data about marriage, madam, not about love. I think if your data asked people if they had ever fallen in love with someone from another caste or religion, many will say yes. I see that all around among my friends.” As author bell hooks notes, in All About Love, “Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart”. This book is a call to build greater self-awareness about India.