Over 200 global economists seek junked NSO report details from govt

Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, French economist Thomas Piketty, Oxford professor Barbara Harris-White, former Planning Commission members Abhijit Sen and A Vaidyanathan, have joined hundreds of others in asking the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to release the junked National Statistical Office (NSO) consumer expenditure survey report for year 2017-18.

Empathising with the government's contention that the results of the survey may show divergent trend with the macroeconomic estimates of the national accounts, more than 200 renowned economists and scholars from across the globe, in a letter sent on Thursday, said that work can be done "to identify sources of and reduce these discrepancies" once the data set is made public.

"The fact that data on supply of goods and household consumption are diverging points to the need for questioning supply-side data (which are being widely questioned within and outside India) as much as it points to the continuing need for improving survey methods," the economists said. "It is of fundamental importance for the nation that statistical institutions are kept independent of political interference, and are allowed to release all data independently. The record of the present government on this score has been very poor," the statement said.

Business Standard reported on Friday that consumer spending fell for the first time in over four decades by 3.7 per cent between 2011-12 and 2017-18, according to the NSO’s ‘Key Indicators of Household Consumption Survey’. The survey, conducted between July 2018 and June 2019, was approved for release by an expert committee on June 19, 2019.

Following the report, the statistics ministry said it has decided to junk the survey because of “data quality” issues. This was the first time the government decided not to release a survey conducted by the NSO, formely known as the National Sample Survey Office, a statistical body set up in 1950.

During the fag end of its previous tenure, the government had withheld the Periodic Labour Force Survey of 2017-18 for five months. The survey, which showed the unemployment rate touching a 45-year high of 6.1 per cent, was approved by the National Statistical Commission (NSC), an autonomous body overlooking India's statistical system, in December 2018, but was released in May 2019 after the results for the Parliamentary elections were announced. Two members of the NSC, including its chairman P C Mohanan, had resigned as the government was not releasing the data.

The letter by the economists said that until recently, India had “good cause to be proud of its statistical system” and that the sample surveys conducted by the NSSO “have served as a shining example and a model to the rest of the world”. They said that the government had chosen to attack the credibility of India's "pre-eminent statistical institution simply because the results of the surveys do not accord with its own narrative about the economy, without providing any adequate reasons."

"This suppression of essential data is terrible for accountability and for ensuring that citizens have the benefit of official data collection that is paid for with their taxes. It is also counterproductive for the government, which may be kept in the dark about actual trends in the economy and, therefore, not be able to devise appropriate policies," the statement said.

Others who have signed the statement include several professors of Jawaharlal Nehru University, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and Swaraj India President Yogendra Yadav.

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