CEA Subramanian asks NSC to make junked consumer spending report public

CEA Krishnamurthy Subramanian | Photo: Sanjay Sharma
Chief economic advisor (CEA) Krishnamurthy Subramanian has asked the National Statistical Commission (NSC) to make public the 2017-18 consumer spending survey data.

“The government had decided to not release the consumer expenditure survey report. But, earlier this year, NSC Chairman Bimal Kumar Roy received a communiqué from the CEA’s office requesting the results be made public as it is used for analysis in the Economic Survey,” a top official aware of the development said, requesting not to be identified.

NSC members were informed about the CEA’s communiqué in a meeting held recently and a smaller group within the statistical body, led by Roy, was supposed to take a call on the issue. “The meeting hasn’t taken place yet,” the official said.

Roy and Subramanian didn’t respond to queries sent through e-mail.

The findings of the report, published by Business Standard in November 2019, showed consumer spending falling for the first time in over four decades in 2017-18. The survey showed the average amount of money spent by a person in a month fell by 8.8 per cent in villages and by 2 per cent in cities in 2017-18, compared to 2011-12. Some experts interpreted it as a case of rising poverty, while an expert group appointed by the government opined that the fall in consumption of food items was due to a rise in consumption through the public distribution system and non-food items due to free health care services, among other factors.
The government uses this data set to estimate poverty and inequality, apart from using it for changing the base year for the gross domestic product (GDP).

The day the results of the report were made public by this publication, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation issued a statement saying it had decided to scrap the survey because of “data quality” issues. The NSC, an autonomous statistical body, was not consulted before the press statement was issued. This was the first time the government had scrapped a survey of this scale since the erstwhile NSSO was established in 1950.

In the Economic Survey of 2019-20, tabled in Parliament in January 2020, Subramanian had attempted to estimate the cost of a meal in India, using consumer spending data as one of the indicators, in the chapter ‘Thalinomics: The Economics of a Plate of Food in India’.

After the 2017-18 survey report was junked, the NSC decided to conduct fresh consecutive surveys for 2020-21 and 2021-22 with changes in methodology. However, the field survey for its pilot, which began in March, couldn’t be completed as a national lockdown was imposed on March 24 to curb the spread of Covid-19. As a result, the main survey, which was supposed to be conducted in 2021-22, got further delayed. 

This implies that India will unlikely have an estimate on poverty for a long period – the latest figures available are for 2011-12, when the consumer spending survey was last made public.

The United Progressive Alliance government had decided to conduct a fresh consumer spending survey in 2011-12, as it was of the view that 2009-10, when the survey was conducted after the usual gap of five years, may not be an appropriate year for changing the base year for GDP as it coincided with the worst drought in four decades and a global economic crisis. However, the UPA government still made the report public.

But the 2017-18 report, approved for release by an expert committee on June 19, 2019, was withheld due to its “adverse” findings. Roy had told this publication in December 2019, after the National Democratic Alliance government decided to junk the report, that the results will be published after adding certain caveats. However, in a meeting of the NSC held in January 2020, the then chief statistician Pravin Srivastava and some other members of the NSC objected to the release of the report.

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