Months before withholding the release of the Employment-Unemployment Survey for 2017-18, the government had tweaked the composition of a key panel set up to recommend candidates for the post of Chairman and members of the National Statistical Commission (NSC).
The changes, made in August 2018, meant the government’s representation in the search committee effectively doubled. The search panel, which was earlier headed by the Vice Chairperson of the Niti Aayog and comprising an RBI Deputy Governor and two outside members, is now headed by the Cabinet Secretary (as against Vice Chairperson, Niti Aayog), along with a new member: the Additional Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister.
Besides these two, the new search panel has an RBI Deputy Governor as a member and two outside experts. The NSC is an autonomous body tasked with monitoring and reviewing the country’s statistical system.
Raises questions on autonomy of body
Concerns over the functioning of the NSC emerged after its Acting Chairman, P C Mohanan, and J V Meenakshi, Professor at the Delhi School of Economics, quit in January protesting the withholding of the NSSO’s 2017-18 employment survey. The Government’s tweaks to the NSC search committee raises more questions on the autonomy of India’s highest advisory body on statistical matters.
After the changes, the ranking of the search committee has a procedural skew, given that the Cabinet Secretary is chairing a committee to select the NSC Chairman, a post that is equivalent to the rank of Minister of State.
According to an office order of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) dated August 17, 2018, the composition of the search committee was announced with the Cabinet Secretary as Chairman and Additional Principal Secretary to PM, RBI Deputy Governor Viral Acharya, Delhi School of Economics former professor K L Krishna, and former NSC Chairman Radha Binod Barman as members.
Earlier, the composition of the search committee, according to the MoSPI Resolution dated June 1, 2005, was: Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission as Chairperson along with an RBI Deputy Governor and “two eminent persons who may be distinguished statisticians or social scientists with an intimate knowledge of the statistical system of the country” as members.
On April 7, 2015, following the formation of the Niti Aayog that replaced the Planning Commission, the MoSPI amended the resolution to change the Chairperson to ‘Vice-Chairperson of the NITI Aayog’ from ‘Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission’ while the rest of the members of the search committee remained unchanged.
The same search committee used to recommend names for the Chief Statistician of India, a Secretary-rank post. On February 7, 2018, the Government notified service conditions for Chief Statistician of India, superseding previous notifications and the resolution of 2005, stating that “a Search Committee constituted by the Government of India ‘from time to time for the purpose’ will recommend a panel of names for filling a vacancy from amongst the applicants. Besides the applicants, the Search Committee may also recommend names of other persons considered suitable for the position”.
Economists and statisticians are of the view that changes to the composition of the search committee to select the NSC Chairman defies fundamental protocol because a Secretary-rank official should not be in charge of the selection process for an MoS rank position, in this case, the NSC Chairman. They are also of the view that the change tilts the balance in favour of the Government.
“It is fine to have a committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary to select the Chief Statistician, which is a Secretary-rank post, but it is improper to have the Cabinet Secretary in charge for selection of the NSC Chairman, which is a ministerial position. The earlier head of the committee was Vice Chairman, Niti Aayog, which is a Cabinet Minister rank. So, the committee’s head should be at least MoS rank, if not higher. That is the fundamental protocol,” Pronab Sen, the Country Director for the India Programme of the International Growth Centre and former chief statistician of India told The Indian Express.
According to the August 2018 office order, the search committee is supposed to recommend three names from which to select the Chairperson of the NSC and two names each for selection as Member in each of the areas of specialisation.
At present, the NSC only has Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant as the ex-officio member and Chief Statistician of India Pravin Srivastava as Secretary.