On May 23, while the counting of votes for the Lok Sabha election was underway, the NDA government passed an order to merge the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) with the Central Statistics Office (CSO). The order, which cleared the formation of an overarching body — National Statistical Office (NSO) — skipped any mention of the National Statistical Commission (NSC). This is unfortunate. As the NSC is an independent body which oversees technical aspects of the NSSO’s statistical work, the worry is that this move will impinge on the autonomy enjoyed by the NSSO so far. Coming at a time when data put out by the Indian statistical system is already under a cloud of suspicion, this is likely to raise further questions over the independence of the statistical system.
Events over the past year have suggested that all is not well in the Indian statistical system. At the centre of it all, was the NSC. It all began when a report, prepared by a committee appointed by the NSC, showed that under the new GDP series, the economy had grown at a much faster pace under the UPA, than previously estimated. With the NDA government quick to disown it, the matter acquired a political dimension. A few months later, P C Mohanan, acting chairman of the NSC, and J V Meenakshi, Professor at the Delhi School of Economics, resigned from the NSC, protesting against the decision to not publish the NSSO’s employment survey. The results of the survey showed that unemployment in India had surged under the NDA. Then, a few weeks ago, another report by the NSSO showed that a large number of companies in the MCA21 database — which is integral to estimating GDP under the new series — either couldn’t be traced or had closed down or were operating in different sectors. This warrants a relook at the manner in which the MCA21 database is used for estimating GDP.
This series of events, followed by the government’s latest order, is likely to increase scepticism of official data. But, while the more immediate concern is that of the role of the NSC, the larger concern is the decline of what was once a famed statistical system. For a government that should have begun its new term by re-building the credibility of the system, this is not a good start.