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India must strengthen the credibility of its national statistical system

The non-release or delay of NSS data has happened in the past but this did not emerge in the public domain.

analysis Updated: Jun 24, 2019 20:30 IST
Amitabh Kundu
Amitabh Kundu
The first step has been taken by the government by releasing the employment data for 2017-18 and providing free access to household level data. The country will watch with hope and anxiety the subsequent steps to strengthen the independence and credibility of national statistical system(Shutterstock)

A major challenge before the new government coming with a massive national mandate is to establish the dignity and credibility of national institutions. With the goals of achieving rapid economic growth, equity and employment generation, it would be important that the people accept the information coming out of the National Statistical Organisation (NSO), a new institution proposed by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation (MOSPI), through the merger of Central Statistics Office (CSO) and National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). While it is true that large segments of the Indian electorate do not care about data and research and get swayed by rhetorics and slogans, data can be made to play an important role in shaping the latter.

There are apprehensions that this merger will compromise the independence, impartiality and smooth flow of data to researchers outside the government. NSSO was established as part of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), as an independent and non-bureaucratic data gathering organisation. Despite it coming under the Ministry in 1972, the degree of its independence could largely be maintained. NSSO database constituted not only the backbone of the plan preparation and monitoring by Planning Commission, it led to interesting debates among researchers within and outside the government on critical national issues such as the trends and patterns of consumption, poverty, employment and other socioeconomic parameters. Even NITI Aayog has extensively used NSSO data in putting forward development perspectives and visions for strategic interventions. This spirit of independence is respected even in the constitution of National Statistical Commission (NSC), which always has a member from ISI.

Centralisation of data in the ministry can become a hurdle for its quick and timely release for public research and debate, it is argued. It is, however, premature to speculate that the merger would lead to the NITI Aayog and other government departments becoming the main users of the data and make their access for independent researchers and research organisations extremely difficult. Such apprehensions can easily be traced to the procedural lapses in the release of the gross domestic product (GDP) data, methodology for computing national income series with a new base year and non-release of the unemployment data in recent times.

It is erroneous to think that the ministry does not have enough control over NSSO under the present arrangement to dictate terms in its functioning. It is nonetheless extremely important for any credible assessment of the performance of the government that the confidence of the researchers and data users with regard to quality of the data and their easy access is restored by certain definitive actions by the government.

The liberal intellectual tradition in the country has always stood for the esteem and dignity of the national statistical system. Any attempt to discredit the official data through sample surveys, sponsored by international or private agencies, were contested and resented as interference by vested interests to compromise national priorities. BS Minhas, the chairperson of NSSO, talked of rating the data generating agencies by the NSC, based on the tests of robustness adopted by National Statistical System. The social science community, through several seminars and workshops during 1980s and 1990s,voiced the risks of market-linked agencies debunking the basic principles of pro-poor interventions in India using the results of their quick surveys. The propositions, such as affordability of the poor to accept free market solutions, their having high saving rate to pay for the instalments for housing and basic amenities etc. were often refuted by academia using the NSSO data. A Vaidyanathan chaired a committee in 1985 proposing strengthening of the national data system and the role of Indian Council of Social Science Research to curb the growing influence of motivated data generation. The council brought out a volume, India’s Socio-Economic Database (2001), with the same objective.

All this stands in contrast with the present situation of selective questioning of the national data by a large section of liberal intellectuals. Indian economists associated with global institutions and foreign universities have commented on the quality of the data and the functioning of the institutions that have damaged the credibility of Indian data. Young scholars are nervous in using the official data for being criticised for doing pro-establishment research. Several surveys with scanty sample size and dubious methodology have drawn greater media attention than the data released through the official system.

Efforts must be made on both sides. It is difficult to defend the non-release of the (Periodic Labour Force Surveys) unemployment data for 2017-18 until the formation of new government on grounds of non-comparability of the estimates with the earlier rounds, although there are grounds to hold that they must not be compared without adjustments or caveats. It is for the researchers, both in and outside the government, to debate such issues. The organisation concerned can certainly bring out notes on non-comparability or other technical issues and that must be debated. All this would go a long way in enhancing the independence of the proposed NSO.

It is important to note that non-release/delay of NSS data has not happened for the first time in history. On several occasions, the decisions of the NSC were bypassed by the government, as admitted by several officials who were at the helm of decision making. However, these did not emerge in media or public domain. The liberal intellectuals are, however, extremely vocal during the past couple of years. One would speculate this to be because the liberal positions are in conflict with those taken by leaders associated with the government, privately and sometimes officially, on social, religious and cultural issues, that are regressive. This is responsible for a sense of resentment, leading to strong intellectual support for people who protested or resigned from the institutions on technical grounds. Consequently, one finds scholars who have not worked in the area of unemployment or national income joining the bandwagon of protest on data comparability prompting the culture of protest and resignation.

The first step has been taken by the government by releasing the employment data for 2017-18 and providing free access to household level data. The country will watch with hope and anxiety the subsequent steps to strengthen the independence and credibility of national statistical system, provide access to disaggregated data to researchers and other users and create an environment for informed debate on empirical issues of national importance.

Amitabh Kundu is distinguished fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, former professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has served as a member of National Statistical Commission

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 24, 2019 20:30 IST