Understanding India through numbers, and Indian journalism in today’s age

Rukmini S, an acclaimed journalist and author, discusses her 2021 book, "Whole Numbers and Half-Truths" with Ashish Kulkarni, Assistant Professor at GIPE.
Rukmini S, an acclaimed journalist and author, discusses her 2021 book, “Whole Numbers and Half-Truths” with Ashish Kulkarni, Assistant Professor at GIPE.

The Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics hosted a book event in the last week of April. Acclaimed journalist and author Rukmini S. was in GIPE to discuss her bestseller book, “Whole Numbers and Half-Truths”. 

She shared what her book is about, why it is important to understand India through data, and why journalism–and most importantly, in-depth, analytical and investigative journalism–needs to build trust among the growing audience. 

The book is a treat for anyone who wants to learn more about India through hard data and facts. It has ten chapters, each of which explains how India (or, Indians) live, work, earn, spend, vote, and much more. 

Her interaction with Ashish Kulkarni, who teaches at the Institute, was followed by a question and answers session. She made the following important points.

  1. The book was written for the layperson, by a layperson. Being unable to do regressions and econometric analyses did not hinder her. Rather, she has explained the realities of India by breaking down numbers to a level that anyone can understand.
  2. Indian reality is messy and news reporting flattens it out. What we hear in the popular discourse is only a tiny bit of what the reality is. To understand India with a fair bit of accuracy, we need to look deeper into the numbers, and news reporting generally tends to prevent that.
  3. Objectivity is a fool’s pursuit in journalism. Though we think that numbers—and reports based on data—are as objective as they can be, they are not. Personal bias is a difficult monster to tame. It is, however, in our own hands to be fair to the reporting we do as journalists.
  4. Is there a crisis in journalism? Yes, there’s a crisis of accountability, and then there’s the one of trust. What data journalists can do is make the data they use for their stories public, on GitHub or alternate platforms. This would build trust between the journalist and the audience by introducing transparency.
  5. Did India undercount Covid19 deaths? Yes, but it happens in all countries, and more so during a pandemic. The issue here is not that undercounting happened in India, but that the Government of India denies it. All other countries have shown willingness to reconcile the official death toll by accepting that deaths have been undercounted due to several limitations.

Her book is available here