The controversy over two top functionaries of the National Statistical Commission (NSC) resigning in protest over the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) withholding its new employment survey adds to a growing list of government interventions in data releases. There is a common theme — the government is seen to take an adversarial stance when confronted with datasets that are uncharitable regarding its performance. The new Periodic Labour Force Survey for 2017-18, which replaced the Annual Employment-Unemployment Survey, was expected to throw light on the job losses that happened post-demonetisation. Indications are that the data cleared by the NSC — an autonomous body tasked with overseeing the functioning of the country’s statistical systems — did not paint a rosy picture of the period under review.
Earlier, in November, the NITI Aayog had shepherded the much-delayed release of the GDP back series data after a change in the base year from 2004-05 to 2011-12. This, too, courted controversy — on the role of the Aayog in the data release process and because the data from the Central Statistics Office, under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, had trimmed the average growth during the UPA years and showed higher growth in the four years of the BJP-led government. This ran exactly counter to what an NSC-appointed committee had, just three months earlier, reported for the period 2004-05 to 2013-14. A fresh twist to the controversy came over the revelation that over two years earlier, the CSO had finalised back-series data for GDP that had projected an upward revision in growth rates for the UPA years, but the Niti Aayog did not permit its release then.
There have been fresh interventions in data collation efforts, including Niti Aayog-piloted enrollment data for Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). In the process, though, regular data sets have gone missing. Apart from the Annual Employment-Unemployment Survey, the Labour Bureau’s Quarterly Employment Survey that was initiated in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis underwent a revamp in 2016 and saw just seven reports being released, with the last one for July-September 2017 released in March last year. The labour ministry has, however, held back the release of the eighth round of the Survey. The NDA government’s increasingly messy record on data releases comes even as top government functionaries have bemoaned the lack of credible labour statistics. In the US, for instance, payroll data by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics measures new job creation accurately by releasing data each month. As Nobel prize-winning British economist Ronald Harry Coase said, “If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything”. From India’s perspective, repeated interventions in data releases run the risk of denting the market’s trust in official data released by government agencies. This is a lesson China has learnt the hard way.