William Setzer, in the working paper, “Politics and Statistics: Independence, Dependence or Interaction”, published by the UN, lists several possible areas where political interference in official data generation and publication can happen. One of these is the extent and timing of release of data. He cites several examples. Most of the instances quoted by him fortunately happened in the past and in countries not following a democratic political system. However, generation of official statistics with independent oversight was recognised as a key requirement for ensuring data credibility in India from the very beginning. Successive governments have made efforts to create institutions to safeguard the integrity and objectivity of official statistics and recognised official data as a “public good”. The present government also notified in the official gazette the acceptance of a set of principles called the fundamental principles of official statistics that is accepted as the bedrock of an independent statistical system.
The first of the fundamental principles of official statistics notified by the government of India states that “Official statistics provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the government, the economy and the public with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation. To this end, official statistics that meet the test of practical utility are to be compiled and made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honour citizens’ entitlement to public information.”
The National Statistical Commission (NSC) was one of the two most visible outcomes of the report of C Rangarajan on the Indian Statistical System, submitted in 2001. The report was commissioned by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government recognising the increasing importance of official statistics in a world that was getting integrated economically. Credible data was required not only for national governments but also sought by multilateral agencies for inter-country comparisons, as well as for investment decisions by private corporates. The other outcome was the creation of a position called the Chief Statistician of India (CSI) with a fixed tenure and to be selected from a panel given to the government. The idea was that the CSI heading the Central Statistical Office would be a professional and not a career bureaucrat. The NSC was to be the apex body for all statistical matters with a very wide mandate.
My resignation from the NSC along with J V Meenakshi, its only other non-official member, was the last act in a long story of disregard for the commission’s recommendations, reducing its effectiveness. Many of these instances are noted in the last two annual reports submitted to the government by the commission. The claim of the ministry, that we did not bring these grievances to their notice, clearly brings out the truth that nobody in the ministry cared to read these reports. These reports are supposed to be placed in Parliament along with an action taken report by the ministry of statistics.
The resignation and the government response to the leaked report has brought into question the autonomy enjoyed by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). The National Sample Survey (NSS), initiated in 1950, as a nation-wide survey operation, was initially handled by the Indian Statistical Institute and the Directorate of NSS under the government of India. All aspects of survey work were brought under a single umbrella by setting up the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) through a cabinet resolution in March 1970. Since then, the NSSO has been functioning under the overall direction of a Governing Council with autonomy in the matter of collection, processing and publication of survey data, thus ensuring freedom from political and bureaucratic interference. Subsequent to the setting up of the NSC, the council was dissolved and its responsibilities given to the NSC.
One of the reasons for our resignation was the non-release of a survey report prepared by the NSSO and approved by the commission to be released in December 2018. The release date was decided in consultation with the NSSO almost a year ago. Generally, the NSSO produces three to four reports every year and these are routinely approved by the commission and released by them thereafter. The special attention paid to this report by the ministry was possibly because it implicitly contradicted some of the claims of the government. Unfortunately, in this process, fundamental questions on the independence of statistical agencies have come to the fore and as the acting chairman I felt it my duty to leave the commission rather than acquiesce to the deliberate slighting of the NSC. Meenakshi also took the same view.
Efforts were made to suggest that the report was only a “draft” and the final approval was to be given by the government and later on a series of questions on the methodology were also raised. Surprisingly, it was the NITI Aayog, and not the Chief Statistician whose job it is to uphold the integrity of the official statistics, that took the initiative to raise technical doubts on the report and the survey methodology. A similar involvement of the NITI Aayog in the release of the GDP back series had also raised questions.
Questioning the report is perhaps the first step in the standard government response to such situations and the next step possibly would be to refer the report and methodology to a committee of experts, only to delay the report. Modifying survey estimates would amount to changing the standard procedures based on sound statistical theory.
The NSSO has been the most transparent statistical organisation anywhere in the world, with independent experts outside the government actively involved in all stages of survey work and access to the microdata given to all researchers at a nominal charge. The vast number of research papers that followed this unrestricted access to survey data is testimony to the willingness of the NSSO to be questioned by independent researchers and the acceptance of NSSO data (with all its known limitations) as one of the best sources for economic and social research in India.
The report based on a new series of surveys on employment was coming after a gap of six years. The lack of data on employment had even been commented upon by the Honourable Prime Minister. The report and the survey data would have contributed to our understanding of the economic and social transformation taking place in the country and known to have accelerated in recent times. This opportunity is now delayed.
(The writer is former head of the National Statisitical Commission)