India's data blues

The resignation of two non-official members of the National Statistical Commission (NSC) on Wednesday raises several questions over the way the government treats inconvenient economic data. The NSC is an autonomous body formed in 2006 and is mandated to evolve policies, priorities and standards in statistical matters; it also approves statistical reports produced by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). The twin resignations, that of P C Mohanan, the acting chairman, and J V Meenakshi, mean that the NSC now has just two functioning members out of the seven that it is supposed to have. The posts of full-time chairman and two members were already vacant before these resignations. In other words, the acrimonious departures have effectively made the NSC a defunct organisation, as it now has only two government nominees — Chief Statistician Pravin Srivastava and NITI Aayog Chief Executive Officer Amitabh Kant. Mr Mohanan and Ms Meenakshi, whose term was valid till June 2020, have made a serious accusation — that they were “sidelined and not taken seriously”. 

The immediate trigger, however, is the delay in releasing the NSSO’s first series of household survey, known as the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLSO), for 2017-18. The members have also been unhappy about the publication of back-series growth data for gross domestic product (GDP). Indeed, when the government released the GDP back-series in November, it broke convention by channelling the release through the NITI Aayog, bypassing any consultations with the NSC in the process. This did not go down well with NSC members since the statistical body’s own report on the GDP back-series, the results of which were at considerable variance from the government’s version (which was brought out later), was disowned by the government as just another statistical exercise. The chief statistician has, however, defended the government by saying that NSC members did not express any concern in any of the meetings in the last few months, and the ministry of statistics and programme implementation said the NSSO’s survey has been designed to yield annual estimates of the labour force on employment and unemployment, along with quarterly estimates, for urban areas. It also said that the NSSO is processing data for the period from July 2017 to December 2018 and the report will be released thereafter.

 
Regardless of where the truth lies, one thing is certain. There is a lot that is amiss in the structures and processes that govern the construction and dissemination of India’s key economic statistics. And for the fastest growing major economy in the world, this could turn out to be an unnecessary hurdle, all of its own making. The credibility of India’s macroeconomic data — be it unemployment, GDP growth, fiscal deficit or foreign direct investment — is critical to ensuring that investors take India seriously. Moreover, this is not something over which parties should play politics. Irrespective of which government is in power, India needs to urgently repair the damage to the reputation of its macroeconomic data and the organisations that analyse them. Bringing about greater transparency on the methodology used as well as sticking to a regular, time-bound schedule are the essential starting points.  

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