Autonomy of statistical agencies is important to ensure credibility of data

Fortunately for us, successive governments have made efforts to create institutions to safeguard the integrity and objectivity of official statistics and recognised official data as “public good”. This government also notified in the Gazette the acceptance of a set of principles called the fundamental principles of official statistics that is accepted as the bedrock of an independent statistical system.

The first of the fundamental principles of official statistics notified by the government of India states that “Official statistics provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the Government, the economy and the public with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation. To this end, official statistics that meet the test of practical utility are to be compiled and made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honor citizens’ entitlement to public information”.

It was the Vajpayee government that recognised the importance of official statistics in a world that was getting integrated economically. Credible data was required not only for national governments but also sought by multilateral agencies for inter-country comparisons besides for investment decisions by private corporates. The Rangarajan Commission was appointed in January 2000 to critically evaluate the Indian statistical system and suggest measures to improve it. One of the follow-ups on the recommendations of Rangarajan Commission report submitted in August 2001 was the setting up of the National Statistical Commission (NSC). 

 

The National Sample Survey (NSS), initiated in the year 1950, as a nationwide, large-scale, continuous survey operation conducted in the form of successive rounds was established on the basis of a proposal from Professor PC Mahalanobis to fill up data gaps for socio-economic planning and policy-making through sample surveys. Initially, all aspects relating to the designing of surveys, processing of data and preparation of reports were entrusted to the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). The then Directorate of NSS in the government of India had been responsible for carrying out the fieldwork in all areas except in the state of West Bengal and Bombay city, where the fieldwork was carried out by the ISI. All aspects of survey work were brought under a single umbrella by setting up the NSSO under the resolution dated March 5, 1970. Since its creation, the NSSO was functioning under the overall direction of a Governing Council with autonomy in the matter of collection, processing and publication of survey data, thus ensuring freedom from political and bureaucratic interference (Rangarajan Commission Report, para 14.2.30, emphasis added).

With the setting up of NSC as an independent apex body for the Indian Statistical System in 2006, the Governing Council was dissolved and all the responsibilities handled by the council was handed over to the NSC through a government notification. Since then the NSC has been overseeing the technical work of NSSO including the approval of all survey reports with the director general of NSSO responsible for the dissemination of survey reports.

It is this scheme of things that ensured the credibility and independence of the Indian Statistical System now being disturbed by the claim that the NSSO reports approved by the NSC requires further government "approvals" before it is released to the public. The NSSO has been the most transparent organisation anywhere in the world, where independent experts outside the government are actively involved in all stages of survey work. The ministry of statistics was the first to come out with a policy on data dissemination in 1999 that ensured the researchers access to the micro data collected in NSSO surveys at a nominal charge. This was much before the Right to Information Act and the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy covering all kinds of government data. The vast number of research papers that followed this unrestricted access to basic survey data is a testimony to the willingness of the NSSO to be questioned by independent researchers and the acceptance of NSSO data (with all its known limitations) as one of the best sources for economic and social research in India.

What is also lost in the eagerness to discredit the survey report is the story of change taking place in the economy and society visible even in the few figures published by this newspaper. It talks of how the youth, especially in the rural areas, are availing of improved educational opportunities to become more qualified and openly seeking employment in the non-farm sector; the improved connectivity in rural areas adding to the expectations of better job prospects especially for rural women; how there is a healthy growth in the wage/salaried employment as opposed to engagement in marginal or subsidiary employment in household enterprises that contributes very little to the country’s GDP. Availability of the report and the micro data from the survey to the researchers would have answered many questions and contributed to our understanding of the transformation taking place and known to have accelerated in recent times.

It is certainly a case of shooting the messenger without reading the message.   
Mohanan was a member of the National Statistical Commission and resigned his position recently. Kar is a survey statistician and member of the Standing Committee for Labour Force surveys that guided the Periodic Labour Force Survey. He is currently associated with the ISI Kolkata


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