Sainath is Innumerate

P. Sainath being innumerate is actually the most charitable explanation for this editorial. A less kind explanation is that his bias is making him too lazy to do his research properly, and a very unkind explanation is that he’s actively using scare tactics to push an agenda.

I refer specifically to this section:

Let’s revert to the latest maternal mortality figures released by the WHO and others. Some 536,000 women died in childbirth in 2005. Of these, every fifth one of them, at least, was an Indian. That is, 117,000 of them. A total that could only be matched by Nigeria, Afghanistan and Congo together.

Does Sainath not understand the concept of per-capita mortality rates (which makes him innumerate at best and stupid at worst), or is he intentionally not bringing them up (which makes him dishonest)?

The report Sainath is referring to is here. Scroll to Page 23 of Section 1 (which is Page 29 of the PDF file). This is the table which has the estimates of maternity deaths. Page 24 has the India figure: as Sainath says, it’s 117,000.

What about the three other countries? The figures are:

  • Nigeria: 59,000
  • Afghanistan: 26,000
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: 32,000

which totals to 117,000 as well.

What Sainath omits, of course, is that India’s population is one billion people, much more than that of Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the DRC taken together. What is very curious is that the report puts the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth and the deaths per hundred thousand childbirths in the same table, and Sainath doesn’t use these measures, which are far more useful and worthwhile. Incidentally, here they are:

Lifetime risk of maternal death:

  • India: 1 in 70
  • Nigeria: 1 in 18
  • Afghanistan: 1 in 8
  • DRC: 1 in 13

In other words, you are four times less likely to die giving birth in India than Nigeria.

What about the number of deaths per 100,000 childbirths (referred to as the Maternal Mortality Rate, or MMR)? In the same table, we get the figures:

  • India: 450
  • Nigeria: 1100
  • Afghanistan: 1800 
  • DRC: 1100

Now, if 1 out of 70 mothers is going to die giving birth, that is still an obscene figure. And there is a long way to go. Similarly, if approximately one of every two hundred pregnancies is going to end in the death of the mother, that’s still nothing to be proud of.

For comparison, here are the MMR figures for the Asian tigers, which started independence poorer than India:

  • South Korea: 14
  • Singapore: 14
  • China: 45 
  • Malaysia: 62
  • Thailand: 110
  • The Phillipines: 230
  • Hong Kong: not considered
  • Taiwan: not considered, because this is the UN, and we can’t offend the Chinese. Oh no.

So there’s a long way to go. But to twist statistics to make India seem worse off than countries with actual mortality risks four to eight times worse smacks of scare tactics. Moreover, an unbiased person would look at the table, and see links with levels of urbanisation, the rule of law, and how soon a country started economic reform. Sainath looks at it and goes off on a tangent to abuse the media for talking about the Sensex instead of this (and doesn’t that argument sound very similar to the one which abuses the media for talking about the Gujrat riots instead of the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits?).

Sainath also writes:

In fact, it would be good to devise a health index spanning the reform years. One that looks at how both rich and poor have done health-wise. How many years of life, for instance, are taken away from you by ill-health if you are one of India’s less well off citizens?

Excellent idea. Let’s look at the WHO’s 2000 report on Maternal Mortality. Scroll to page 26. The MMR in 1998 was 540. In other words, the maternal mortality rate has seen a 20% drop in 7 years.

So let’s close with Sainath’s parting shot:

Maybe we need a media relevance index. An MRI scan of mass-produced mediocrity.

Like the mediocrity of his research and grasp of statistics? Pot, kettle, black.

0 Responses to Sainath is Innumerate

  1. […] Aadisht fisks P.Sainath’s latest editorial in the Hindu on maternal mortality. What Sainath omits, of course, is that India’s population is one billion people, much more than that of Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the DRC taken together. What is very curious is that the report puts the lifetime risk of dying in childbirth and the deaths per hundred thousand childbirths in the same table, and Sainath doesn’t use these measures, which are far more useful and worthwhile. […]

  2. ankan says:

    Sainath is an excellent journalist by all accounts. One particularly admires his contribution towards highlighting the plight of the rural poor, who are no doubt the forgotten ones. Nevertheless what you point out here is also correct; it is important to be honest with statistics so that both negative and positive aspects come out as they are.

    At least at this point, I feel a hesitation from attributing a bias to Sainath. As they say, when you are too close to something you cannnot see things clearly. Probably Sainath has seen so much negative news out there in rural India (and undoubtedly there is a lot of that), he has lost all hope to see anything which is not a devastating news.

  3. Ritwik says:

    He is not just innumerate, he is also illiterate. Ethiopia is not ranked one place ahead of India in that list, it is ranked 20 spots below. The idiot has just read the DNA article whihc specified that India was rank 94, and then specified that Ethiopia has done a slightly better job of achieveing the Millenium Development Goals, put 2 and 2 together and gotten 5.

    This idiot won the Magsasay award. What to say.

  4. Ritwik says:

    I mean the Global Hunger Index that he wrote about in the first half of that article.

  5. Nitin says:


    Sainath suffers from typical singleissueadvocatitis. You begin to believe that the issue is so important that you do everything to try and put it on top of the public agenda. That’s the most charitable explanation I can offer.

    But even if we are charitable to him, the morality of offering misleading data, knowingly or out of ignorance, is dubious. Playing up the wrong problem comes at the cost of relatively playing down other problems.

    There was a time when Sainath could be taken seriously because he had his feet on the ground. No more. He’s turning gaps into antagonisms, which is not at all a good way to bridge them.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Just stumbled across your article and have to say the article is quite interesting. However I think you missed the point of Sainath’s article completely.

    Isn’t it that maybe, just maybe, instead of focusing so much on the rapid growth of India, we could pause for a moment and give a brief thought on the television channels to if we can speed up our ranking on the Global Hunger Index from 94 up a few ranks.

    Or maybe its just not that important. Sorry for mentioning it.

  7. DP says:

    Point taken, Aadisht. His numbers do not bear the scrutiny of a diligent analysis. The bigger point is that we would need to refocus on basics such as healthcare, primary education etc.

    One metric I would like to see where I would like India compared with countries like for instance a Korea at one end or a Nigeria at the other would be the inverse of a co-efficient of variation in these healthcare statistics. Simply divide the averages by the Standard deviation. I would probably stick my neck out and say India would be apthetic in this regard.

    Also for instance if Nigeria’s per capita income is say $X, I would probably re compute the per capita from the bottom up for India’s population till it reaches the same $X. Then we would compare the Health statistic referred to by Sainath for the new sample of the Indian population which has a per capita income $X. Maybe then we will be closer to the hypothesis Sainath makes.

    We must remember he writes with passion, sometimes factual slip ups are better forgiven unless the facts paint a totally different picture.

  8. Ankur says:

    What exactly is the agenda you are accusing Sainath of pushing — urging us to do more to reduce maternal deaths? And how does the death of an Indian mother during child birth become any less important or inhumane just because there is a larger denominator that her death can be divided by? And this surely is the first time I have heard people being accused of talking of maternal deaths as scare tactics. Paying lip service of the kind you do — that we should do more– not only completely misses the point but is a trite and hackneyed way of deflecting the obvious point — as a society we do not care enough.

  9. Aadisht says:


    the agenda that Sainath is pushing is to create the impression that people who have benefitted from economic reforms have done so at the expense of people who haven’t. If you read his editorials and columns regularly, you find this agenda is quite consistent. It’s also a false impression – because the prosperity that has arisen from reform never existed earlier, and the destitute never had any wealth to be snatched away.

    The denominator does not make it less inhumane, but very definitely makes it less important. Dying in childbirth does not exist in a vaccuum. The frequency of how often they die will determine whether it is more important to gear our health system to preventing maternal mortality, to tackling AIDS, or to build sanitation systems. When you exaggerate the extent of maternal deaths you deflect attention away from potentially more serious problems – rural roads, law and order, or drinking water supply, say. In such a case, calling it a scare tactic is quite justified.

    Saying that we should do more is perhaps hackneyed, but you will notice that Sainath does not offer any solutions about what we should do. Also, the question of whether society cares enough or not is moot. Suppose society did care. What action would it take to show it cares? Tackling maternal mortality will require systemic solutions including the construction of hospitals and primary health centres, training doctors and midwives, ensuring that these medical personnel are at their places of work, and work without demanding bribes. No matter how much any one individual might care about this issue, she doesn’t have the resources to set this giant system into place all over India.

    Blaming society for not caring – and that too without proof – is a lazy copout from addressing the problems of systemic failure and proposing solutions, which is something Sainath has rarely bothered to do.

  10. […] Aadisht writes on how Sainath make statistics appear in a manner which would push his real agenda, which would be taxing and humiliating the rich as much as possible. […]

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