BENGALURU: The present government was quick in circulating the notice that December 25 every year shall be observed as good governance, however, what seems to have been over looked by not just the present government, but all previous ones is the very basic prerequisite for good governance - thoroughly collected and managed data.

Admittedly, the governance and administration of a country as large and populated as India is no easy task, but one would expect at the least that after 70 years of Independence, there would be clarity on the number of villages in the country.

A village after all, is the basic unit of administration and fiscal governance.

A recent report on the IndiaSpend website has revealed that the number of villages in India is unclear. It could be anywhere between 600,000 and one million, according to various government databases.

According to the census - the most reliable source of information about administrative boundaries in the country - there are around 649,481 villages in India. However, the census itself cannot be used to study the various trends and prevalence in the country, for the simple reason that the census does not categorically take down data.

For example, until the 2011 census, the national estimate of the number of persons with disability was unknown. It was for the first time during the 2011 census, that persons with disabilities were recognised under a different category. Much of the data gathered under the census similarly remains questionable due to problematic and varied criterion setting.

As per the Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) database of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitatio there are 608,662 villages in the country. While the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan puts it at 605,805.The lack of clarity regarding these numbers is a result of different government departments adopting different definitions and administrative units to operate and monitor their programmes.

The difference in numbers across databases does not just pose a problem for administrative and monitoring purposes as several articles have pointed out - but it spells doom for public and welfare policy in the country. For those who are familiar with the policy making processes in the country are aware that policy making in India is often arbitrary, seldom based upon prevalent trends, ground realities or data and mostly done in order to fulfil commitments to international conventions.

Take for example the Mental Health Care Act, 2016 which repeals and replaces the Mental Health Act, 1986. The entire law was repealed and re-enacted, but in the process of re – formulating this law, the policy makers did not take into account or look at the number of persons with mental illness in the country or the trends and prevalence of the kind of mental illnesses.

It was once the Bill was introduced in Rajya Sabha for passage that points regarding data, prevalence and trends were raised. However, despite the lack of data the Mental Health Care Act was re-enacted and passed, to fall in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, of which India is a signatory.

An effective policy finds its foundation in being data and evidence driven – both of which are absent in the country. It is terrifying in itself that policies are not data and evidence driven, adding to that is now the fact that there is no clarity on the exact number of villages (which, let me remind you, is the basic unit for administration) which makes the scenario even more petrifying.

This recent revelation also goes on to show how convergence among the various governance and administrative structures in the country is entirely absent, with all of them operating, planning and monitoring projects based on their own definitions and criteria. Also exposing one of the many reasons public and welfare policies in India are failing.

The absence of such basic and critical data has implications not just for governance and administration, but also in terms of planning and, resource and budget allocation at the village level. It also poses a challenge for local governments and administrative structures to develop holistic and nuanced plans and interventions.

The present government must with urgency and without further delay address this huge gap in data and plan for ways to develop a common database which is used by all concerned government departments in developing and implementing government schemes and policies more effectively and efficiently.

Standardisation of such basic data will contribute not just to smoother administration and appropriate budgeting, but will also lead to ‘good governance’, by making it possible to look at prevailing trends, villages lacking behind and tracking the impact of schemes and policies across not just the country, but across villages in districts.

Standardisation of data would also contribute to the decentralisation of governance, providing local governments the opportunity to work more effectively and directly with those concerned in a democratic and participatory manner.