On May 23, when everyone was focused squarely on the results of India’s general elections, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation made a significant decision: The Central Statistics Office would be merged with the National Sample Survey Office. For most, this sounds like bureaucratic jargon, one department being put together with another that does vaguely the same thing.
And indeed, there is some truth to this.
The CSO collects and interprets data on economic indicators such as the Gross Domestic Product and the Index of Industrial Production. The NSSO carries out research on unemployment and consumption in the broader economy.
A committee headed by C Rangarajan, a former head of the Reserve Bank of India, recommended a merging of these bodies to form a combined National Statistical Office more than a decade and a half ago, and this was then approved by the Cabinet in 2005.
But the context is also important. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which since 2015 has been battling accusations that it has undermined India’s statistical system, spent the last two years saying that the problem with bad economic indicators is inaccurate data rather than actual on-ground conditions.
It has been accused of using the government think tank, NITI Aayog, a body headed by a political appointee, to interfere with India’s official statistics. This came to the fore late last year when a report showing that unemployment had reached a 45-year-high in the months after demonetisation was not released by the government, leading to resignations from members of the National Statistical Commission – a separate body that is supposed to be independent, and expected to oversee the work of the NSSO. The NSC has been without any independent members since.
On two other occasions as well, the government has been accused of interference.
In August last year, a report by a committee appointed by the NSC showed that, under the new method of calculating GDP, the economy had even crossed into double-digit numbers under the previous Congress-led government. The Modi government insisted this was wrong, and it eventually released its own ‘back series’ data, after consulting with the NITI Aayog, which showed GDP under the Congress to be significantly lower than over the last five years.
And less than a month ago, another report by the NSSO revealed that the corporate database that is meant to dramatically improve the way the government calculates GDP under the new formula is riddled with companies that couldn’t be traced or were operating in sectors other than what as recorded. This suggested India needs a closer look at how it estimates GDP. The government brushed off these questions, however.
It is this context that raises supiscions about the government’s decision to merge the two bodies, especially the timing. The ministry order on the merger does not make any mention of the role of the National Statistical Commision, which as the independent overseer, is the most important piece of this puzzle if India’s statistics are to be believed by the world.
There have been some reports that the government may choose to strengthen the NSC through legal backing. If it were to indeed remain independent and get statutory backing, this would be a welcome move, but consideirng the context, observors are right to be concerned about the government’s intentions here.
Torturing data to represent what is convenient may help a government in the short-term, but it helps no one on any other time frame, and indeed can be extremely harmful if policy is being made in the dark. The government would do well to recognise this and make every effort to ensure India’s statistical collection and interpretation systems are truly independent and credible.