Imagine that you are in the hot seat on Kaun Banega Crorepati2, and you are just one question away from the grand prize. Your question, for two crore rupees, is as follows: "What was the value of India's exports in 2005-06? Your choices are, a) $102.72 billion; b) $103.09 billion; c) $100.61 billion; or d) $112 billion?"
If I were Shahrukh Khan, this would be about the time I would be chucking in the spiel about thinking carefully, making sure, using a lifeline and so on, since big monies are at stake. If I was the producer of the show, though, I would be down two crore rupees, regardless of which option you pick!
Why? Because all four options are right, depending on where you sourced the data from – the Reserve Bank of India, the Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics (DGCIS), the Commerce ministry website or the US Central Intelligence Agency's dossier of facts and statistics on various countries, including India.
How can this be? One country. One government. One indicator and one variable. Yet, we have four different numbers, all from impeccable sources. The Reserve Bank of India is India's central monetary authority and captures all data on trans-border money transactions.
The commerce ministry is the apex arm of the administrative arm of the government which supervises foreign trade. The DGCIS does exactly what its name suggests: it gathers commercial statistics. And, apart from Hollywood's depiction of some of the more sinister aspects of its functioning, the CIA is also the principal information – read intelligence – gathering agency for the world's biggest economy and the only global superpower. They can't all be wrong, surely?
Well, yes and no. One of the principal reasons why the numbers differ is that there are too many number-gatherers, using too many methodologies.
The reason I was prompted to check this was a post on the website of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), a US-based forum of, well, south Asian journalists, which had queried the quality and reliability of Indian data. Back in my cyclostyled (anybody around who still remembers what that means?) press handouts days, I used to have the devil of a time trying to decipher the numbers on the smudgy-inked releases on slate-grey paper – and trying to get a cross match with the RBI's numbers.
That was almost two decades ago, before the age of digitisation and the Internet. If the situation still persists, it means that we do have a problem. Not necessarily one of accuracy, but one of standardisation and harmonisation. If this doesn't happen, the data is non-comparable. And non-comparable data serves no useful purpose.
Then there is the issue of different timelines, and the non-separation of the data-gathering bodies from the rest of the bureaucracy. I am not suggesting privatisation here – that is neither practical nor indeed advisable – but the need to introduce a degree of independence and rigour. Journalists can still get away with approximations. But if a bunch of bean counters are counting the same pile of beans, at the very least, they should come with the same tally.