The organization that publishes data that often forms the basis of government policies and the business strategies of companies is facing a human resource crisis, which, if left unchecked, could affect the quality of data and, consequently, the working of state governments and companies.
The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), part of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, is facing attrition at the field-staff level and it isn’t attracting enough new recruits.
“As of today, we have vacancies for 600 field investigators and for every vacancy of 30 such investigators, we don’t get more than 14 or 15 decent candidates. We don’t have a figure on attrition yet, but we are concerned,” said Pronab Sen, chief statistician of India.
NSSO employs 2,600-odd field investigators, while it should have 3,200 on its rolls.
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NSSO’s problem affects more users than similar issues in other government departments and organizations. That’s because no other entity conducts this kind of micro- level socioeconomic surveys. Such surveys are especially critical at a time when the economy is expanding rapidly. And private agencies cannot mimic NSSO’s efforts of sending investigators countrywide.
Data published by NSSO includes that on poverty, consumption of more than 300 commodities across states and economic segments, employment, education and vocational training, nutrition and eating patterns, and energy consumption across households.
“It (NSSO’s work) has got unique data and very rich information. In itself, there is no substitute,” said D.K. Joshi, principal economist at Crisil Ltd, a credit rating agency.
According to Rama Bijapurkar, an independent consultant, NSSO data is of immense benefit to organizations mapping their strategies. “I myself use these data for understanding various trends as they give the aggregate picture of what India spends and in which direction the country is headed. While these data may not help in guiding a company in say, starting an outlet in Muzaffarnagar, they will certainly guide the firm in shaping its business direction.”
Sen said that NSSO’s researchers, typically graduates in maths and statistics, have been finding more lucrative options in business processing outsourcing (BPO) firms and market research agencies such as IMRB and ORG-MARG.
Pramod Naik, V-P, Abacus Field-IMRB International, said: “To the best of my knowledge there is nobody who has joined IMRB from NSSO. We have a vast number of investigators, around 5,000 in number, working in the field.”
Private sector market research firms do not employ researchers or investigators as they are known within the business, but hire them for assignments. Depending on how much work they do, the researchers earn between Rs5,000 and Rs8,000 a month, still marginally better at the higher end than what an NSSO researcher earns. These researchers fall within the government’s clerical grade and earn around Rs6,500-7,000 a month. The starting salary in a BPO firm on an average is about Rs10,000 a month.
Graduates in maths and statistics have also been able to target the growing lucrative business of tuition—in smaller towns earnings from this are in excess of Rs10,000 per month.
Sen said the ministry would soon make a representation to the Centre to resolve the crisis. That may mean asking the government to consider field officers as technical staff and, therefore, revise their salary.
This too may not be enough as field investigators have unique skills, according to Sen. NSSO’s investigators conduct surveys in 18 languages and are engaged in this work for almost the entire year. Sen said these people learn “soft skills” on the job. In a country where the average literacy rate is about 65%, this is important.
“That is the reason why it is difficult to substitute manpower with technology. Since villagers are illiterate and not articulate, these investigators have to use their skills to interpret what the villagers say,” said Sen. The researchers have also acquired the ability to extract information from people who are reluctant to share it.
“As it is, we could do with many more investigators considering the mammoth exercise that is involved in data collection,” said Sen. If India followed the same staffing pattern for researchers as Australia that carries out similar extensive surveys, NSSO would need to employ 80,000 researchers. It manages with less than 5% that number, he said.
“I would be very concerned if NSSO curtails its services because of any such development, as they do extensive surveys in rural areas and no surveys cover rural households as also the entire country, as well as NSSO’s do. They (NSSO data) are as important as the GDP or the national income data,” said Bijapurkar.