A group of 202 academics from several countries on Thursday issued a statement demanding that the Indian government release the data and reports of all surveys conducted by the National Sample Survey Office, including the one showing that consumer expenditure fell in 2017-’18 for the first time in four decades.
The academics included Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, French economist Thomas Piketty and political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot among several others. Indian signatories included A Vaidyanathan, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, several professors from Jawaharlal Nehru University, faculty from the Indian Institutes of Management and Swaraj India leader Yogendra Yadav.
The survey the academics were referring to was prepared by the National Statistical Office and its findings were first reported by Business Standard last week. The newspaper had claimed that the government had withheld the report due to its adverse findings. In its response, the government claimed that the survey had been withheld because of “data quality” problems.
The signatories contended that it is fundamentally important for the country that statistical organisations are kept free from political interference, and allowed to release all data independently. However, they argued, the record of the Narendra Modi-led government in this regard has been very poor. “Until recently, India has good cause to be proud of its statistical system, and the sample surveys conducted by the NSSO [National Sample Survey Organisation] have served as a shining example and a model to the rest of the world,” they added.
The academics alleged that the government has attacked the credibility of the NSSO survey on consumption expenditure purely because the results are not in line with its narrative on the economy. “It has repeatedly shown its disinclination to make public any information that may show its own performance in a poor light,” the academics said, pointing to the delayed release of the periodic labour force survey earlier this year.
In May, the government had released a report by the National Sample Survey Organisation that showed that India’s unemployment rate rose to a 45-year high of 6.1% in 2017-’18. It also claimed later that the survey findings were wrong.
The academics said that hiding of essential data on the economy also hampers the government in understanding actual trends in the economy and therefore designing appropriate policies. “In the interest of transparency and accountability, all data must be released without delay and irrespective of what the results are,” the signatories said. They added that withholding such data is fundamentally against national interest.
“We therefore demand that the government should immediately release the report and unit-level data of the 75th Consumer Expenditure Survey,” the signatories wrote. “The government should also commit to release all other survey data after the usual processes to check for possible errors have been concluded.”
The statement also responded to the government’s claim that “significant increase in divergence” was noticed between the findings of the 2017-’18 consumer expenditure survey and other data like the actual production of goods and services. The signatories said that past surveys had also shown divergence from macroeconomic estimates of national accounts.
“Also, National Accounts estimates are based not only on administrative data but on a combination of sources including NSSO and other surveys,” they said. “Several committees have looked into these discrepancies.” The academics said that it has been noted that the flaws lie as much in the methodologies pursued to arrive at macroeconomic estimates, as they do in surveys.
“Consumption surveys are crucial for monitoring trends in poverty and inequality, and are also of critical value for national income accounting, and for updating macro-economic data such as price indices,” the signatories said. “They can provide an important check on administrative and macroeconomic data, which is important both for policy makers and the general public.”