A Planner's Fetish

What do tourism and slums have in common? Besides the recent "Reality Tours" trend, not much! That's not what the Government of India thinks, though. This year, its national survey department has apparently decided to combine data collection on domestic tourism with that on housing conditions and slums. This means a surveyor "may be visiting you to collect data on your various travels," and "you may be also asked about housing conditions and slums."

So, are they going to ask a middle-class Indian about his last trip to Goa and the condition of his spacious flat in a Mumbai suburb, and then about the needs of slums (in which he's never set foot)? Or are they going to approach a slum household and ask them about their next weekend getaway destination? According to the notice announcing the survey, the government will use this data for planning. I can only imagine the enlightened policy India is in for.

My Indian colleague thinks that this comical combo was the result of a misguided cost-cutting measure, but I think it also says something about the relationship between statistics and planning more generally.

Like most of us in the mainstream, which rational thought has steadily colonized since Descartes, planners have a fetish for numbers. They're easily digestible. They sound important. And supposedly they don't lie. Except that statistics are not neutral, and what you ask determines what you get. If you only ask middle-class Indians about slums, you're going to get a very skewed picture. In fact, even asking about "slums" implies that such a characterization is accurate, even though the term is problematic because, among other reasons, it has strong connotations and imposes a false dichotomy on what is really a complex map of spaces and levels of informality.

Statisticians don't really measure truths, so much as create them by deciding what to ask and of whom. Although the questionable assumptions behind surveys are rarely as egregiously obvious as in this case, surveys are never just a technical exercise — and planning shouldn't be either.

(Thanks to Indu Agarwal, who made my morning when she showed me the notice.)

(Incredible India image from www.indian-tourism.us.)

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