CAA protest fallout: Govt likely to defer key socio-economic survey

People fear that survey officers are collecting data that can be used for determining their citizenship
In the possible first blow to the country’s statistical system arising out of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the government may defer a key socio-economic survey because surveyors are facing the wrath of people who see it as a data collection exercise for determining their citizenship.

The decision to recommend the postponement of the National Statistical Office’s 78th round of survey on "domestic tourism expenditure" and "multiple indicators", which began last month, was taken at a meeting of an expert committee, known as the working group, according to three persons in the know.

“An expert group met on Wednesday and recommended deferring the survey due to various challenges being faced by field investigators in various parts of the country. The government has to take the final call now,” a person aware of the development said.

One major challenge faced by surveyors is the lack of cooperation by households, as they are either being shown the door or attacked during their work, putting their lives at risk. People fear that survey officers are collecting data that can be used for determining their citizenship.

The survey, scheduled to be conducted during January-December 2020, is aimed at mapping the multiple indicators of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2030 for the first time and is collecting information on migration patterns of citizens and purchase of houses, among other things.

What has complicated the matters further are the questions that are being asked in this round of survey. Sample this: Did the person stay in the same place for at least six months? What was the last place of residence? Are household members planning to move out? Which country did the household member last live in?

Then, there are basic questions which are also seen suspiciously by citizens. For instance, a question on their religion, on whether they possess a birth certificate or about a place of residence purchased after March 31, 2014.

The NSO has received complaints from various states, including Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Bihar, and Karnataka. But the most affected state is West Bengal, where no household surveys are being conducted at present.

“The 78th round began in a few places but the resistance started pouring in and safety of field officers became an issue. Surveyors were attacked and gheraoed. Even the district administrations said it was not the right time to conduct any survey,” a senior NSO officer in West Bengal said.

The field office in West Bengal shared evidences in the form of photographs and newspaper articles with the expert committee that had met on Wednesday. “Initially we thought some questions related to migration are a source of concern. But people are getting spooked with basic questions such as name or religion,” the official explained.

Other surveys such as the Seventh Economic Census, the periodic labour force survey, and the unorganised sector enterprises survey have also been halted in West Bengal, a state official said. Only surveys related to agriculture, industry and market price collection are taking place there.

Similar is the case in Bihar where bordering regions, especially in the northern part, saw problems related to NSO surveys. “Citizens are trying to find a co-relation with the survey questions and the CAA. And the fact that there are some questions related to residency and migration is adding to the trouble,” a senior NSO officer in Bihar said.

Chief Statistician Pravin Srivastava didn’t respond to questions by Business Standard.

The way forward

“At the moment, there is not much that can be done. Everything is contingent upon the National Population Register exercise,” former chief statistician Pronab Sen, who is also heading the standing committee on economic statistics, said. Sen added that a large number of unresponsive sample distorted the survey results.

The expert committee’s decision to recommend deferring the socio-economic survey comes at a time when the government is planning to conduct fresh back-to-back surveys on consumer spending in 2020-21 and 2021-22. The periodic labour force survey, tracking employment and unemployment, is also being held on a continuous basis since 2017-18.

The Centre had decided to junk an official survey, conducted by the NSO in 2017-18, after Business Standard reported in November that consumer spending fell 3.7 per cent between 2011-12 and 2017-18 for the first time in over four decades, pointing to rising poverty levels. The report, which was approved for release by a working group in June 2019, was withheld due to its “adverse findings”.

The CAA fast-tracks citizenship to non-Muslim religiously persecuted immigrants from three neighbouring countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The law has met with widespread protests across the country.

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