No country for honest statistics: What?s behind the two recent resignations from the National Statistical Commission?

Two members of the National Statistical Commission (NSC) resigned Monday over the government’s refusal to release the post-demonetisation employment data alongside other controversial decisions, including the publication of the GDP back series before the upcoming polls.

In a move that sees yet another institution standing up to the centre’s attempted takeover of its autonomy, NSC acting chairman PC Mohanan and external member JV Meenakshi quit the commission, a year ahead of the expiration of their tenure, saying they felt sidelined by the centre.

“We have resigned from the NSC. Over the months, we have been feeling that we were not taken seriously and being sidelined by the government. Recent decisions of the NSC were not being implemented,” Mohanan told Business Standard on Tuesday.

Expressing grave disappointment over the government’s treatment of the NSC, the latest series of resignations leaves the commission without any external member, and follows Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian’s abrupt resignation last year. Erstwhile RBI governor Urjit Patel had also resigned over disputes concerning surplus transfer and PCA framework for debt-ridden banks, marking a precarious chapter for institutional autonomy in India.

The issue at hand

The recently resigned NSC members cited a lack of consultation with the Commission before the government released the backdated gross domestic product (GDP) series last year, as a key reason motivating their decision. According to other sources, the NSC was also kept out of the release of the National Policy on Official Statistics and the latest Economic Census.

But a more immediate trigger for their resignations is the centre’s delay in publishing the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO’s) employment survey for 2017-18—the first ever series of household survey. Also known as the periodic labour force survey, its entire point was to reflect job losses in the wake of demonetisation.

The NSC reportedly approved the survey report for release in its meeting on December 5, 2018, in Kolkata, but the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation has not been made public yet.

“The report was approved and should have been released immediately, but was not. I thought I should not watch silently what was happening,” Mohanan told Business Standard after stepping down.

“The NSC was essentially meant to bring about a sense of credibility to the data put out by the National Statistical System and if the NSC feels that it is not being permitted to carry out its functions, then it is entirely appropriate that it resigns,” Pronab Sen, who was the NSC’s chairman between 2013 and 2016, told Business Standard.

“Since the NSC is the apex of the system, it should have enough space for being independent,” another former NSC chairman, Radha Binod Barman, said. “Independence of the NSC should be maintained. It is supposed to be impartial.”

The Congress on Wednesday, January 30, 2019, accused the Modi government of destroying yet another institution, chalking it up to the government’s “malicious negligence”.

Those in favour

Chief Statistician of India Pravin Srivastava, however, explained that the NSSO was supposed to come up with annual estimates on labour force, along with quarterly ones in urban areas, which will be released only after the quarterly survey results for July 2017-December 2018 are processed.

Addressing a congregation at Surat on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi credited the demonetisation exercise for driving down real estate prices so that the country’s youth could afford houses, without tendering an official response to the recent spate of resignations.

A long list of missing statistical data

Sources in the NSC indicated that the delay in publishing the household survey results could also be because the government is uncomfortable with its findings. This means the report may contain damning evidence that the note ban exercise of 2016 may have adversely affected the job market in subsequent months.

At this point, it is also worth noting that the annual household survey for 2016-17 conducted by the Labour Bureau is also being withheld by the Labour and Employment Ministry despite necessary approvals in place.

The centre has also been accused of indefinitely postponing the publication of the first Socio-Economic Caste Census in eight decades, conducted by the UPA government in 2011 and reports of which were submitted in 2015.

The latest census data, however, remains unavailable although RTI activists have written to the centre to publish the findings, time and again over the last three years.

On January 3, 2018, the office of the Registrar General of India said that the data would be analysed by an expert group to classify the names of castes returned in the survey. Such a group was ordered to be formed in July 2015 but is yet to be set up. There has been much criticism over methods of data collection and databasing of the 46 lakh castes, sub-castes, synonyms, surnames, clans and gothras.

The objective of the latest census was to get a picture of the caste structure and work out targeted welfare scheme for the relevant groups. Experts have claims that the census has thrown up astronomical data—a higher OBC population figure—which could lead to demands for a higher quota in government and jobs.

Employment and sketchy data

India falls significantly behind in its estimation of employment and unemployment due to several limitations including a nine-month lag between survey and release, extrapolation based on responses from very few sectors, and basing the assessment on household/enterprise surveys or administrative data. Such parameters lead to discrepancies, calling for a much-needed overhaul in the way the Quarterly Employment Surveys (QES) are conducted which despite being a fundamental yardstick, accounts for only 5% of the workforce.

With the general elections drawing closer, employment is believed to be a contentious and polarising issue for all parties during campaign season. In 2017, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that 30% of Indians aged 18 to 29 were unemployed and looking for work.

The scarcity of jobs in the country is not a reality the government is prepared or willing to address, and the lack of reliable data only makes it easier to pull off an eyewash. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has repeatedly claimed that the lack of numbers on jobs is a bigger challenge than job creation itself.

A survey by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy noted that 406.5 million Indians were employed in the fateful quarter of September-December 2016, while 29.6 million were unemployed. The unemployment rate which was 6.8% fell sharply in the next after the labour force registered a sharp fall in the number of unemployed persons (down to 20.1 million).

“After the shock of demonetisation, the count of both—employed and unemployed—fell. The sharper fall in the unemployed reflects the greater distress among the unemployed. The people who were unemployed and were looking for jobs earlier stopped looking for jobs post-demonetisation, because they believed that there were none on offer… The results reflect the stark fact of India’s markets ,” CEO of CMIE, Mahesh Vyas writes for ThePrint.

The NSSO survey, despite its shortcomings and flaws, is a crucial and autonomous study of the state of the country’s force and demographic dividend. A report on it, ratified by the apex advisory body on statistical matters, can empower voters to see for themselves if the government has made good on its promise to create more jobs over the past five years. Obstructing the flow of empirical information, or realigning it to suit their purpose is not new to the ruling government.

NITI Aayog over NSC: GDP back series controversy

The had kicked up a major row last year when it claimed that India’s economy grew by 8.5% in 2010-2011, and not by 10.3% as thought before, thus bringing the GDP accrued in the Manmohan Singh-led UPA era down by nearly 2%.

The new data was computed by the Central Statistics Office and released through NITI  after the dismissed the earlier GDP data put out by the National Statistical Commission, which showed that the economy had grown faster during the previous government.

A new back series was called for, because old data was deemed incomparable to that of the later years, although the centre’s move to change the base year from 2004-2005 to 2011-2012 after Modi came to power, has been deemed as a deliberate bid to confuse the common masses.

The recalibrated growth rates now reflects the average growth in GDP under the BJP government (7.35%) between 2014-2018—marginally better than that of their predecessor’s (6.7%) during 2005-2014. Moreover, the move to bypass and supersede the NSC’s series by opting for NITI Aayog’s has not sat well with members of the commission.

The spectre of redundancy

The NSC was set up in 2006, replacing the governing council, with Professor Suresh D. Tendulkar as its first chairman. An autonomous body to assess policies and approves reports developed by the NSSO, the commission comprises seven members although it has been running at half strength for quite some time, with the government moving very slowly on appointing new members, according to sources.

With the resignation of the chairman and an independent member along two pre-existing vacancies, the current strength of the NSC rests on chief statistician Srivastava, and ex-officio member Amitabh Kant. And the longer the sits on NSC’s employment report, the more it is rendered redundant.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

ControversydemonetisationGDP back seriesJV MeenakshiNational Statistics CommissionPC Mohanan