For some time now, concerns have been voiced over the ability of the once famed Indian statistical system to bring out credible and timely data. The government has only fuelled such doubts by repeatedly showing its discomfiture with data put out by the statistical system that is seemingly at odds with its projected narrative. The suppression of the periodic labour force survey for 2017-18 which showed that unemployment had touched a record high of 6.1 per cent, and the subsequent withdrawal of the consumption expenditure survey, which showed that consumption had declined between 2011-12 and 2017-18, only lend credence to the charge of political interference with the statistical system.
On its part, the government has recently taken steps to restore the creditability of Indian statistics. It has set up a committee under the chairmanship of Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India, and has included some academics who have questioned official statistics. The committees could begin by addressing various data issues such as the growing divergence between consumption expenditure estimates from the National Sample Survey and the National Account Statistics, the accuracy of the new GDP estimates by examining the Ministry of Corporate Affairs data, and the computation and application of deflators in GDP estimation. However, as Sen has told this newspaper, the committee’s remit is limited — it ends with the submission of good and timely data to the national statistical office. Thus, more needs to be done to restore the credibility of the statistical system. To begin with, the government should put in place a calendar for all data releases. To be sure, data such as the national accounts, the index of industrial production, and inflation are released regularly as per a pre-determined calendar. But such timelines have not been set for the release of the employment or consumption expenditure surveys. For instance, the idea behind having quarterly surveys of urban employment was to bring out data on the employment situation in the country more frequently, rather than once every five years. This would be a valuable input into policy making. Yet, rather than releasing them on a regular basis, the government has resorted to releasing them in an ad hoc manner. Ensuring timely release of data would thus be the first step towards restoring the credibility of the statistical system.
The Centre should also reconsider its position on the National Statistical Commission (NSC). As Sen has stated, the NSC bill essentially turns the NSC into a public sector undertaking with no powers of its own. Restoring the autonomy and powers of the NSC will go a long way in insulating the statistical system from the charge of political interference.
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