A file image of Harsh Vardhan. Photo: Facebook/drharshvardhanofficial.
The Minister for Science and Technology Dr Harsh Vardhan this week released a report on the economic benefits of weather forecasting services in India. The report has concluded that investments being made in supercomputing capacity to enhance weather and forecasting services are yielding great economic benefits to farmers, livestock owners and fisherfolk. The National Monsoon Mission, launched by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) in 2012 to improve dynamic monsoon predictions for short, medium and long-range forecasts, has been credited for the document.
On the face of it, the study seems innocuous. After all, it is the job of a government agency to find out if taxpayers’ money being spent on a large scientific project is benefiting the common person. However, below the surface, the study seems like a superficial exercise designed to help private interests in the name of public good.
Here is how this happened. The MoES provides climate- and weather-related information apart from conducting and funding research related to Earth-systems and climate change. It is one scientific department whose work involves direct interface with the public. From time to time, the ministry conducts studies to assess economic impact of its services. The present study is part of this exercise.
The MoES commissioned the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), an economic think-tank based in New Delhi. And in its wisdom, NCAER decided to partner up with Reliance Foundation Information Services (RFIS), an entity of India’s largest telecom service provider. The foundation provided field teams for “collating customised survey data”. But the report does not specify details of this partnership between NCAER and Reliance Foundation, nor does it mention if the primary sponsor of the study, MoES, was aware about the terms of engagement of a commercial entity in the study.
As one goes through the report, it becomes clear that the Reliance Foundation had a role that went beyond proving field teams for the survey, as Dr Shekhar Shah of the NCAER claims in the introduction. The study is based on a survey involving 6,098 farmers, fisherfolk and livestock owners spread across the country. The data was collected through a set of questionnaires for the three groups of respondents.
The NCAER developed the questionnaire in ‘consultation’ with the Reliance Foundation and other MoES arms, like the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Only the NCAER can tell us why the Reliance Foundation was consulted when framing the questionnaire, considering the foundation was not the study’s sponsor, and only provided field teams. Not just this: the people selected to answer the questionnaires were provided by the Reliance Foundation as well. The report says: “The data collection was done among RFIS users through computer assisted personal interview (CAPI) technique.” Farmers and fisherfolk selected for the survey were those who have been engaged with RFIS for over three years, according to the report.
The selection methodology is also intriguing. The universe for data selection was the RFIS’s centralised database, which has the mobile numbers of various farmers and fisherfolk. From this database, the surveyors filtered out those users who have been “regular listeners of complete voice messages for over 60 per cent of the messages around the year.” In addition, people who had called up Reliance Toll Free Helpline or had participated in its audio conferences or face-to face meetings were also shortlisted.
From this list of mobile numbers, the report says, the study’s participants were randomly selected from each district. It means all those included in the survey were customers of telecom services provided by Reliance. The MoES needs to clarify if it is not concerned about how customers of telecom services other than those provided Reliance use IMD’s weather services.
Further, the questions – framed by the NCAER in consultation with Reliance – read like they’re from a market-research survey conducted for Reliance services such as JioChat, Reliance Foundation Toll Free Helpline, the text-messaging service of the Reliance Foundation, the RF Machali app, etc. In all the three questionnaires, farmers and fisherfolk have been posed leading questions about their use of these apps. In a list of 14 sources of weather information listed, five are from Reliance and have been place in the upper half of the list, while government apps like Meghdoot, of the MoES, and SMSes through the Kisan portal run by the Centre have been placed much lower on the list. The MoES launched the Meghdoot app in ten Indian languages last year, and would have been interested in getting feedback from farmers. But the study does not share any data on this, although such data has been collected.
If the idea was to gauge the use of all weather-related apps and helplines – both private and public – then the list should have included names of such apps instead of just mentioning JioChat and Reliance help lines.
The study smacks of deep conflict of interest, none of which has been disclosed by the agencies involved. The survey was designed in consultation with Reliance, the sample came from the Reliance database and the survey questions featured Reliance telecom products. The questionnaires prominently display the logo of the Reliance Foundation, along with that of the NCAER, as if Reliance had cosponsored the study. During data collection, the contribution of MoES offerings like Meghdoot, Muasam, etc. have either been downplayed or completely ignored, and there is no mention of weather information related products produced by other private and non-profit entities like Kribhco, the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation, etc.
In effect, all this makes it a survey done for and by a commercial telecom operator – which is a player in the agro-information market – designed to research its services and products, but disguised as a government study fully funded by taxpayers’ money. It is surprising that being a scientific department well aware of the basic tenets of doing good research, the MoES has chosen to ignore such a blatant conflict of interest. It does not augur well for the credibility it has earned through improved accuracy of weather-forecasting in recent years.
Dinesh C. Sharma is a columnist and author.