A government committee set up in February examined computers and pen drives and interrogated officials in charge of printing documents in an effort to identify the source of a leaked report showing that unemployment figures had hit a four-decade high in the year after demonetisation. Details of the report were published in the Business Standard in January, after the government’s refusal to release the data prompted two senior officials of the National Statistical Commission to resign in protest the same month.

Although the committee ultimately did not pin the leak on any one person, its report submitted in June, recommended stringent efforts to restrict access to draft statistical reports, including putting a more senior official in charge of printing.

News of the committee’s inquiry comes just as the government has been left red-faced by another leaked report based on a survey from 2017-’18, this time showing that consumer expenditure fell for the first time in more than four decades. After details from the report were published in the Business Standard, the government said it was withholding the report because of “data quality” concerns. This means India is unlikely to have an official estimate of poverty levels for a whole decade.

Observers have highlighted this suppression of statistical reports and concerns about the methodology of calculating India’s Gross Domestic Product to question the veracity of economic data from the government. Many analysts have said bluntly that the official numbers are simply not trustworthy.

The month after the leak published in January, Pravin Srivastava, the Secretary of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, which oversees the functioning of India’s statistical bodies, wrote to the the National Sample Survey Office, which collected the unemployment data. He asked the organisation’s director general to “conduct a comprehensive enquiry into the sequence of events leading to the alleged leak of the report of PLFS [periodic labour force surveys] and clear cut/unambiguous responsibility/accountability of concerned officers/officials if any be ascertained and established”.

Scroll.in emailed queries about the committee and its findings to Srivastava. This report will be updated if the ministry replies.

Thorough scrutiny

The order came soon after Business Standard revealed the numbers from the Periodic Labour Force Survey report, which showed unemployment at a 45-year high in 2017-’18. The report was cleared by the National Statistical Commission but withheld by the government. The data was eventually released after the Lok Sabha elections, with the government taking pains to insist it was not comparable to numbers from previous years and so could not be considered a 45-year high in unemployment.

As part of its inquiry into the leak, a three-member committee under the National Sample Survey Office looked into every aspect of the preparation of the Periodic Labour Force Survey, a survey that the Indian government has been conducting since 2017. It even examined the computers and pen drives of some individuals.

“The computer system[s]... were also scanned to ascertain whether any copy of such report/data files were still available on the system,” the report said. “The Committee visited the conference hall and checked the laptop connected for making presentations and after scanning it was found that no Draft Report/Material related to PLFS is present on the laptop.”

In one case, it also sought testimony of officials about each other, concluding that one person “had been looking after this printing and binding… for a long time and he is very sincere, reliable and particular in his duties. So far neither a single complaint has come nor any mistake/discrepancy observed in his work. Moreover his innocence is clearly established in he himself declaring that he was having the pen drive with him,” the report says.

Culprit unidentified

Ultimately, the inquiry committee concluded that it could not pin the blame on any single person.

“Committee after thorough exercise arrives at the conclusion that it is not established whether leakage of data/report in Business Standard or to Media is from any node of NSSO,” it said. “Therefore, in absence of any corroborative of circumstantial evidence, responsibility cannot be fixed on any official.”

That said, considering the government’s unhappiness with the leak, the ministry had also ordered the NSSO to “take possible steps to put in place an institutional and systematic framework, so that such incidents do not occur in future and the sanctity of the National Statistical System is preserved”.

WIth this in mind, the committee made a few recommendations that involve treating data as if it is secret intelligence material. “Soft copy… should be sent with a message that ‘the documents are strictly confidential and must not be shared with anyone till release of the Report’”, it said.

It added that the reports should be printed under “strict vigil of Senior Officers”, adding that “if required, level of head of Printing & Binding division may be upgraded to appropriate level”.

The committee also noted something that was crucial to the entire affair: “Present system made available the soft copy of the report to all members of the SCLFS [Standing Committee on Labour Force Survey] and NSC [National Statistical Commission] without any caution/advice to the members against sharing of the report/data before release.”

In other words, nobody was told that the approved report was confidential information, not to be shared with anyone, reflecting the standard approach that this material is hardly secret or meant to be carefully guarded.

“Therefore, any of the more than 20 participants in the meeting of SCLFS or NSC could have, intentionally or unintentionally shared the report with or without understanding the implication,” it said.