Postpone data surveys

India faces data-quality issues at various levels and, often, numbers come with a significant lag. This delays policy interventions. The problem of reliable economic statistics is likely to get more acute now. The issue, which was till now limited to acceptance and release of survey results by the government, has reached a stage where data collection itself is becoming a problem. As a report in this newspaper showed last week, the government might have to postpone socio-economic surveys because people are not cooperating with surveyors. The fear is that the government might use the information to determine citizenship.

Consequently, an expert committee has decided to recommend postponing the survey on “domestic tourism expenditure” and “multiple indicators”, conducted by the National Statistical Office. The government, of course, has the option of not accepting the recommendation. But this could lead to at least two big problems. First, the quality of the survey will not be as desired because of the non-participation of households, which would defeat the purpose. Second, it could put the life of surveyors in danger in an environment where a large section of the population is worried about citizenship. Field officers have been attacked in various states. In West Bengal, for instance, surveys such as the economic census and periodic labour force survey are reported to have been stopped. What is worse is that the prevailing political situation is not only affecting the ongoing surveys but could also put the upcoming census exercise in danger, which will have longer-term implications. Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) continue in various parts of the country, including Delhi.

Several state governments have declared that they will not implement the CAA and are not in favour of updating the National Population Register. The mistrust in the general public and the differences between the Central and state governments could affect the census. As former chief statistician Pronab Sen told The Indian Express recently, if the census exercise is not done properly, then all household surveys conducted over the next 10 years would not be reliable because they are based on the census frame. Differently put, the reliability of Indian data will be further questioned. This would not only affect policymaking but will also hurt the overall credibility of the Indian statistical system, which is already under a cloud. The data on gross domestic product, for example, has been questioned by a number of economists. The government decisions to delay the employment data and junk the consumer expenditure survey have not helped the case. The current problem, however, is even bigger and the government would do well to acknowledge its magnitude and take necessary action.

To be sure, the onus of building confidence is on the Central government because the problem started with amendments to the citizenship law. India will not be able to move ahead with a broken statistical system. If the air is not cleared soon, it won’t be long before India is counted among the countries that dress up data to make their economies look better than the reality. There is no denying that there are major problems with the statistical system that are regime-agnostic and need to be addressed. Therefore, it’s time for the government to put policy before politics.

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