Centre publishes disability database stripped of socio-economic figures

Ministry doubts ‘quality’ of socio-economic data collected; not many filled the socio-economic fields as they were not mandatory, say officials; earlier this year, a parliamentary panel had raised doubts about the department’s ability to collect accurate population through UDID mechanism in time

The Union government is shelving whatever socio-economic data it had collected while registering about 94 lakh Persons with Disabilities across the country for the issue of Unique Disability ID (UDID) cards in the past six years, The Hindu has learnt. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is justifying the move by questioning the “quality” of the socio-economic data collected.

The data being shelved include information such as socio-economic category (caste), level of education, employment status, income (personal and family) and marital status of PwDs, with officials saying the focus of the form was always to collect disability data and hence all these fields were made optional. Consequently, many skipped them.

Rajesh Aggarwal, Secretary, Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) of the Social Justice Ministry, said, “The data are not being released because of quality issues.” When asked if the department intends to pursue collecting socio-economic data for future UDID registrations, he said, “The basic purpose of the form is to get a disability certificate… and also, we cannot afford to make the form too lengthy by seeking information we cannot verify.”

The department this week published aggregated data from the around 94 lakh UDID registrations, minus the socio-economic data, with a statement alongside spelling out the objective of the project — to “create a national database for all Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) along with their socio-economic details” so that policy-making and interventions can be targeted.

The government has not officially disclosed the exact number of people who filled in the socio-economic fields for which data are being shelved. The first UDID card was issued in January 2017.

The Centre has said the aggregated UDID data were meant to influence e-commerce organisations to design their platforms in a way that increases usability and purchase cycles among PwDs. It has added that the data were also to help efficient allocation of resources to address the specific needs of PwDs from various communities. Further, the department said the data were supposed to influence the education sector to introduce special educators and special requirements for PwDs.

However, the fate of these objectives is now in limbo — with the government choosing not to publish whatever data were collected in the fields of personal and family income (spouse and father), whether they were Below Poverty Line, employment status, occupation, socio-economic category (SC/ST/OBC/General), and level of education.

A senior government official told The Hindu, “For instance, marital status — only about 15% of those registered have filled it in. It is not enough data to be significant. Again, for income, just 40% have filled it in. The department has no way to verify the extent to which this information is accurate.” Another official aware of the programme’s implementation said that “not enough” PwDs had responded to fields such as education and socio-economic category (SC/ST/OBC/General) either, adding this was among the primary reasons for discounting this data. “On the other hand, the medical data and disability-related data is high-quality because that is verified by doctors. And since the purpose was to register people for disability certificates to make them eligible for the department’s schemes, only those fields were made mandatory,” they said.

Even among the benefits offered by the DEPwD to PwDs, four of seven are related to special education and vocational training programmes, skill training and scholarships.

UDID information

The data that has been released on the data.gov.in portal contains UDID information district-wise, gender-wise, age-wise, and disability type-wise (including level of disability). The government said it hoped this will help NGOs in the social sector and researchers to build physical infrastructure that is accessible for persons with specific types and levels of disabilities. This data are meant to be updated every quarter, the government has said.

It had added that the database was also meant to help design accessible websites and applications and “connect PwDs to digital India”. However, nowhere in the UDID form is any section seeking information on existing computer, mobile, and Internet usage among PwDs.

As the government’s plans to create a unified database of disability and socio-economic data for PwDs goes into cold storage, a Parliamentary panel had, earlier this year, doubted the Department’s ability to even collect accurate population data through the UDID mechanism in time.

The government had told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment that data on PwDs are largely taken from the decennial censuses conducted by the Office of the Registrar-General and sample surveys on disability conducted by the National Sample Survey of the National Statistical Office.

With the 2021 Census delayed indefinitely, the government had explained that UDID forms were meant to elicit enough information to design targeted policies for them. To this, the panel, in its July report, had said, “By the department’s own admission, it has issued 94.09 lakh UDID cards so far whereas the PwD population even 10 years ago was more than double that number.” The Centre has already been under attack from experts, activists, and Opposition leaders for dropping disability-related questions from the forms issued for the sixth round of the NFHS this year.