As You Like It

Is statistical and meteorological data pandering to the establishment?

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Published: April 25, 2018 12:13:08 am
Chief Statistician of India Statistics is a specialised job and traditionally, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, aided by distinguished experts, prepares a panel of candidates for the government to decide the CSI

The government maintains either a studious silence or issues brief comments on matters that have great consequences for the economy. India’s trade policy and negotiations with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is one such issue. Another is the autonomy and responsibility of the central bank and the government of India, when things fall apart. Finally, there are issues of autonomy of institutions like the India Meteorological Department and the Central Statistics Office. These agencies do not make headlines because we are used to high standards of work from them.

Chief Economic Adviser (CEA) Arvind Subramanian did not cover himself in glory by openly criticising the RBI governor and arguing that the RBI was as autonomous as it wanted to be. RBI governor Urjit Patel had not stated he was not autonomous. He made a simple point that the RBI does not appoint or promote a public sector bank’s chairman and directors. These are done by the Union Finance Ministry. If they do not follow the RBI’s instructions, the central bank can in no way intervene in these matters. This is a specific question to which the government has yet to respond.

The ongoing negotiations in the WTO are at a delicate stage. The issue of India’s stake in the future of its global environment is becoming a small part of our international policies rather than the other way around. Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu took a conventional Indian, but detailed, stand in the WTO Ministerial in Buenos Aires, Argentina in December. He clarified that agriculture and livelihood issues were not negotiable for India. Yet, in the third week of February, in a brainstorming meeting ahead of the WTO Ministerial, he said “other issues” were also of interest to us. Trade analysts and commentators pointed out this very profound shift. Thereafter, the commerce secretary said India has continuously chosen to use tariff protectionism as a fig leaf to insulate the country from the world. It has not worked, she said. This kind of strong language has not been used by countries like Canada, Australia, the US and the European Economic Community on India.

I get deeply disturbed if I get a feeling that the statistical or meteorological establishments are not living up to the highest standards of their profession and releasing data which may be “liked” by the establishment. On a well-known business channel, the IMD said the southwest monsoon was to be 97 per cent of the long period average of 89 cms, which is the average rainfall of the southwest monsoon. I kept asking the probabilities of the forecast. Mind you, that probability is not the probability of the event, but of a correct decision on the number. A later download of the release showed that the probability with the forecast was correct; in other words, above 97 per cent of the longer period average was 56 per cent. It would be very close to the toss of a coin. There was a 44 per cent probability that the monsoon would be less than normal.

In the past, in April, the IMD would give forecasts at the regional level. This time Skymet has given the forecast of difficulties in the Deccan plateau, but I am not able to lay my hands on any IMD forecast. The IMD has developed models to make such forecasts even at the level of the meteorological region, so these would be certainly available at higher spatial levels. It would have been good if the IMD had played a normal statistical game and given us its most likely estimate of the kharif rainfall and its temporal and special pattern.

Finally, the Cabinet Secretary chairing the process for selecting the next Chief Statistician of India (CSI) is worrisome. Statistics is a specialised job and traditionally, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, aided by distinguished experts, prepares a panel of candidates for the government to decide the CSI. The GoI is advised not to change the process. If they are keen that the bureaucracy be a part of the process of selection, a committee under the chairmanship of the Deputy Chairman of Niti Aayog could include the Cabinet Secretary in the search panel with other distinguished experts.

The writer, a former Union minister, is an economist

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