This is in response to the article, ‘Because data is a public good’ by P C Mohanan, former head of the National Statistical Commission (IE, February 12).
The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (FPOS) in January 2014. This adoption was the culmination of the efforts of international agencies and member countries to ensure and secure the autonomy and independence of their statistical systems to produce appropriate and reliable data that adhered to certain professional and scientific standards. In the Indian context, there have been a series of committees constituted in the past to improve the functioning of the national statistical system. The Government of India also adopted the UN FPOS in May 2016.
The importance of the statistical system became more prominent when the government constituted the National Statistical Commission under the chairpersonship of C Rangarajan, former governor of the RBI and the then governor of Andhra Pradesh, which submitted its detailed report in 2001. The Rangarajan Commission went into great detail on the data gaps and infrastructure constraints of the national statistical system both at the central and the state government level.
In pursuance of the recommendations, the government formally constituted the National Statistical Commission (NSC) in 2005 as a regular institution with a mandate to evolve policies, priorities and standards in statistical matters. The NSC comprises a chairman and five members along with one ex-officio member [CEO, NITI Aayog (erstwhile Planning Commission)] and the chief statistician and secretary, Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation (MoSPI) who also serves as secretary to the NSC. The chairman and members of the NSC are leading experts in their respective fields of statistics, economics, demography, etc. They are selected by a committee constituted by the government.
The NSC had been constituted through an executive decision of the government and to this extent, its decisions are recommendory in nature. The issue of quorum is also a matter of concern. In the first address by the current chief statistician of India to the NSC after taking charge, the issue of a code of professional ethics was raised. The same is being drafted for use by various committees constituted by the NSC as well as the NSC itself, so that the independence and autonomy of the national statistical system is protected. The NSC has a much larger ambit and remit in terms of improving the national statistical system. The draft National Policy on Official Statistics was a step in this direction to strengthen various pillars of the national statistical system and is being finalised.
The NSC has been giving strategic directions to the national statistical system at the central and state level from time to time. The recommendations of the NSC have always been accorded the highest regard by the government and its valued advice has always been implemented in the true spirit of the recommendations. The national statistical system functions under the overall guidance and strategic directions of the NSC and works within the ambit of its given infrastructure and resources. Over a period of time, there has been an increasing demand on the statistical system for production of relevant and quality statistics through its publications, survey reports, and administrative sources. The ministry has been striving to accommodate these demands given the available resources. Looking at the gaps in various sectors, in 2017-18, the ministry had sought additional resources to undertake several new activities like the Economic Census of Establishments, Annual Survey of Services Sector Establishments, Annual Survey of Unincorporated Sector, National Data Warehouse on Official Statistics and so on. The ministry has also initiated processes for introducing new technological interventions in the data collection process as well as in bringing out its analytical reports.
Considering the fact that statistical data collected from the households and establishments require skilled and trained manpower, and since recruitment, training and deployment of manpower cannot be done overnight, the ministry had initiated an exercise for recruiting people on a contractual basis for undertaking the fieldwork of data collection. The contractual manpower was rigorously trained before being deployed in the field. In addition, for the first time, the NSS took up data collection through tablets under the Computer Aided Personal Interview (CAPI) interface. All these new interventions in the surveys required constant oversight of the various components of the data life cycle and finalisation of reports.
Now, when the ministry had embarked upon new activities with the full support and guidance of the NSC, it was rather unfortunate to learn that two of the remaining non-official members had resigned from their posts, making the Commission defunct. The members had met the CSI on January 23 to discuss several issues and had even fixed a meeting of the NSC for February 4. The ministry was thus surprised to learn that the members had submitted their resignations on January 28, for various reasons which could have been discussed in the already scheduled meeting of February 4. There are, in fact, various fora available in the official channel to raise any concerns. It is rather unfortunate that the members, instead of taking up the responsibility of working closely with the national statistical system to improve it, resigned and abstained from their responsibilities. In so far as the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) is concerned, it is a new survey undertaken by the ministry. Whenever new changes are incorporated in the system, it is important to analyse the process, results and comparability with similar initiatives either in the past or by other collateral data sources.
The NSS had also introduced several new interventions like the use of hand-held devices, rotational panel samples and changes in the criteria of selection of households. The draft report was discussed in detail at the meeting of the NSC on December 5. However, it was felt that the quarterly results may also be processed so that an idea about the results and other parameters could be ascertained. Strictly speaking, the PLFS survey design and the earlier Employment and Unemployment Survey, which were conducted along with the Household Consumption and Expenditure Survey, are not comparable in view of the methodological differences itself. The government has thus decided to refer the matter to the Standing Committee on Labour Force Statistics to examine and ascertain the impact of these changes holistically.
(The writer is secretary, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, and chief statistician to the Government of India)