Updated: January 8, 2020 10:08:06 am
Let me explain why I joined the Standing Committee on Economic Statistics in the first place. I’ve had a long association with the country’s statistical agencies, in a number of its committees. Most recently I was in two committees— on developing indices of services production and prices. Probably for that reason, when the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation took the decision to constitute an omnibus Standing Committee on Economic Statistics, I was requested to serve as a member. India has had a long tradition of building a strong statistical system starting from the time of P C Mahalanobis and other stalwarts. Even today, it has extremely competent and committed professionals, some of whom I have had the good fortune to work with. I joined this Committee to contribute to strengthening that system.
But there were some disturbing recent developments. One was the controversy over constructing a “back series” for the National Accounts Statistics with 2011-12 as base. Given the change in data sources and methodology, this did pose a challenge. But the report of an official committee set up to develop a method of estimating historical numbers was released and rejected, possibly because the numbers did not suit the government. An alternative series was generated through a process that was controversial, because it pointed to political intervention, apparently motivated by the need to present growth under earlier governments in poorer light.
A second source of concern was a recent tendency on the part of the government to delay the release and even hold back survey reports, when it found the results inconvenient or at odds with its rhetoric. The periodic labour force survey results were not released long after the statistical system had vetted and cleared the numbers. Users had to wait for a general election to get over, before the survey results were officially available. Leaks of the report showed that it pointed to sharp increases in unemployment in the country, which seemed to explain the government’s reticence to release the data. That suspicion was strengthened, and partly confirmed, when the government decided to hold back the results of a consumption survey, which again was leaked with the figures pointing to a fall in consumption that would have as its corollary an increase in poverty. The official position is that the survey is faulty and a new survey will be done in 2021 or 2022. But releasing the data to allow researchers to confirm or contest the government view would have been the better policy, especially since the report has been cleared for release by the system. All this points to a significant erosion of the independence of the statistical system.
It could be argued that it is important to strengthen the independence of the system and support its professional core by participating in deliberations on the concepts, methods and processes. That may be why other experts have agreed to join the SCES.
The statistical system has its own strengths and weaknesses. But earlier, there was always an understanding that you have to give the system a degree of independence. There are no opinions or analysis coming out of that system. All that is coming out is data collected and collated, using methods that are vetted by experts of different kinds. All you are finally doing is putting out that information and making it open to scrutiny by ministries, academics, journalists etc. There have always been questions about how independent a system of this kind can be, given the fact that it is part of the government. Recent developments have heightened those doubts, making it less likely that the statistical system can function as it did in the past.
The danger that the system can be subverted increases when there are pressures to misuse the statistical system for political purposes. For example, there is a genuine fear that the exercise of preparing a National Population Register (NPR) as a prelude to Census 2021 could be subject to such misuse. While a house listing process is a prerequisite for the Census, this was extended (not under this government but earlier) to preparing an NPR under the 2003 Citizenship Rules. Now, the demographic data to be collected is being enlarged. While it has been announced that there is as of now no plan to prepare a National Register of Citizens, it is clear that if an NRC process is started, the data from the revised NPR would be used to prepare the NRC. In the process, it is expected that data from the NPR would be used to identify “doubtful citizens”. If the NPR is being modified with this purpose in mind, it would amount to using statistics for purposes not revealed at the time of the original exercise.
Concerns of this kind have now taken on a new relevance because there are signs that the government does not brook disagreement and is not open to debate once it has embarked on a chosen trajectory. Events in the aftermath of the push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 in universities like Jamia and AMU and elsewhere are clear indications. And then the mob attack in JNU which the administration and police were evidently complicit in, which could not have happened if there was no political support. All these reflect an inability to tolerate opinions which differ or dissent of any kind. In my view if this is the government’s approach, it is pointless to be part of a committee which is meant to make the statistical system more robust, credible and transparent. That cannot happen if the government chooses to subvert the process as it has done in the recent past. The JNU events were the tipping point when I finally decided to withdraw. Coincidentally, the first meeting of the committee was to happen on Tuesday, therefore I decided on Monday that I would send in my resignation.
This article first appeared in the print edition of January 8, 2020, under the title “Why I quit the panel”. The writer is a former professor of economics at JNU, Delhi. As told to Asad Ali.
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