Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Statistical system

Concerns voiced over the ability of the once famed Indian Statistical System to place credible and timely data about the state of affairs of Indian economy and various other spheres of the country appear to be genuine. But it is unfortunate that the NDA-government has somehow tinkered with the schedule of such data release and putting it in the public domain for the reasons best known to them. The present rulers have fuelled such doubts by repeatedly showing its discomfiture with data put out by the statistical system that is at odds with its projected narrative of Indian economy and other reports about the state of affairs in the country. The suppression of the periodic labour force survey for the year 2017-18 which showed that unemployment had touched a record high of 6.1% only provided credence to the opposition charge of political interference with the statistical system by the present government. The same is true of the fact about the data about consumption expenditure survey that showed that consumption had gone down between 2011-12 and 2017-18 having been withdrawn by the government. This sort of action on the part of the government also does not appear to be in good taste. It is appears that the data release did not paint the actions of the present government in good light and it was held back when the elections to Delhi Assembly elections were round the corner. But somehow, the government, on its part, has recently taken steps to restore the creditability of Indian statistics. It has set up a committee under the chairmanship of Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India, and has included some academics who have questioned official statistics. The committees could begin by addressing various data issues such as the growing divergence between consumption expenditure estimates from the National Sample Survey and the National Account Statistics, the accuracy of the new GDP estimates by examining the Ministry of Corporate Affairs data, and the computation and application of deflators in GDP estimation. However, as Sen has made a public statement, the committee’s remit is limited – it ends with the submission of good and timely data to the National Statistical Office (NSO). But, more needs to be done to restore the credibility of the statistical system. To begin with, the government should put in place a calendar of the entire year for all data releases. To be sure, data such as the national accounts, the index of industrial production, and inflation are released regularly as per a pre-determined calendar. But such timelines have not been set for the release of the employment or consumption expenditure surveys in the past. For instance, the idea behind having quarterly surveys of urban employment was to bring out data on the employment situation in the country more frequently, rather than once every five years. This would be a valuable input into policy making for the government. It is sad that instead of releasing them on a regular basis, the central government has resorted to releasing them in an ad-hoc manner. Ensuring timely release of data would be the first step towards restoring the credibility of the statistical system of the country. The past practice has been to release the data on regular basis once it is ready after completion of the survey. But it was for the first time in the history of independent India that valuable data was held back by the government for release. The central government should also reconsider its position on the National Statistical Commission (NSC), which they have been demanding while in opposition during the past few decades. As Sen has stated, the NSC bill essentially turns the NSC into a Public Sector Undertaking with no powers of its own. Restoring the autonomy and powers of the NSC will go a long way in insulating the statistical system from the charge of political interference irrespective the political party in power either at the centre.