The government is poised to effect a major overhaul in the country’s data collection process as part of a proposed new law that will make it mandatory to provide data to the nation’s statistical authority.
It introduced a draft legislation in Parliament last week and proposes to follow through with fresh amendments, in the next two months, to give statutory powers to the National Statistical Commission (NSC), making it an independent nodal body looking after all official statistics.
The legislation introduced in the Rajya Sabha is called Collection of Statistics Bill, 2007. The Bill seeks to replace the existing legislation, The Collection of Statistics Act, 1953, which is restricted to industrial data.
The new proposal will extend the scope of the Act to cover all new economic and other activities that have emerged in the past decade-and-a-half since India started liberalizing and globalizing.
Such activities would include, for instance, the services sector that contributes more than half of India’s GDP, as well as agro-processing and horticulture.
“Statutory powers will not only allow an unfettered and unbiased flow of statistics, but also give the commission the required teeth to coordinate the sourcing of data which is currently done—with a lot of difficulty—by the two government statistical agencies, the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) and National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO),” said NSC chairman Suresh Tendulkar.
This will be done through a separate NSC legislation coming in two months, confirmed chief statistician Pronab Sen.
Despite a drumbeat of complaints about the lack and timeliness of data in India, industry analysts say that among comparable developing countries, India’s statistical system has been considered one of the better ones.
“The basic framework on which the official statistical system rests is quite sound,” said Mahesh Vyas, managing director, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, in Mumbai. “Even the methodologies used to collect them, especially in the case of agriclutural data, are robust. But the newer sectors, like the services, are almost entirely uncovered. Also, we don’t even have a dependable numbers for unemployment or consumer prices.”
The new Bill aims to bring all “core statistics”, that is, “statistics of national importance”, under its scope. This is defined as “statistics on economic, demographic, social, scientific and environmental aspects.”
This will include the sample surveys carried out by the NSSO as well as the Census exercise surveys under the scope of the Act, commission member Surjit S. Bhalla explained.
“The penal provisions in the legislation are aimed more at firms, be it in services or agro-processing or manufacturing, than average households. The old Act had similar data collection provisions but no stiff penal provisions,” added Bhalla.
The penalties for not cooperating, refusing, or obstructing the collection of information and destroying or tampering information or documents have also been made stiffer in the new legislation, though they remain relatively small even after that. The fines range from Rs1,000-2,000 for individuals and Rs5,000-10,000 for companies.
Bhalla said that in terms of cooperation with the statistical officers, who will have the same duty and responsibility as public servants, the law expected individual households to behave rationally. For instance, in the case of census surveys, people usually cooperate voluntarily.
But in the case of wrong disclosure or no disclosure by several firms, it could make a lot of difference to, say, national output figures.
Similarly, the government would take responsibility for leakage or misuse of the information so collected. Similar penalties, extending up to prison terms, could be imposed on government officials found guilty of tampering with or leaking such information. Bhalla said the legislation was in keeping with the provisions of the Right to Information and Right to Privacy.
The legislation, which is based on best practices in developed countries such as the UK, Canada and New Zealand, seeks to empower all branches of government, including the panchayati raj institutions (local village administrations) and municipal bodies, to collect data and appoint own officers or contract outside agency for the purpose. It will specify the form and manner in which the information is to be provided.
Disputes arising out of such data collection will not come under the jurisdiction of a civil court and such a court cannot grant any injunction in respect of any action taken under the law.
It will also allow the government to change the definition of “core statistics” from time to time, as needed. Moreover, it covers all methods of data collection, including oral interviews and filing of returns in electronic forms.
The old Act, which covered only industries, trade and commerce, mainly the Annual Survey of Industries, was not equipped to deal with a federal and decentralized system of data collection, explained Sen, especially in regard to empowering the panchayats.
Further, it did not give a statutory backing to either the data collected or to the officers on the job, so far being done purely on a voluntary basis, and often by underpaid, temporary field staff, resulting in information gaps.
The government is of the opinion that the lack of robust statistical information was cramping policy planning. It believes that the need for reliable data would become more critical as the economy grows faster and liberalizes, especially in agriculture, in keeping with its commitments to the World Trade Organization.
The proposal for a new legislation was part of an extensive set of recommendations made in 2001 by C. Rangarajan, the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, as chairman of the first National Statistical Commission.
Pragya Singh contributed to this story.