New Delhi: In a big push to overhaul statistics about India, the administration is proposing to prescribe standards for private data collection agencies, including periodic audits by a government agency.

“There is a proliferation of private agencies, which essentially take our data and then fiddle around with it to suit the needs of the private sector, which is a good thing. But then one has to be careful that in doing so, they are not distorting it. We, at the moment, do not have a system to check this," said Pronab Sen, chief statistician of India.

Sen maintains that statistical audits for private data sellers would ensure people would be convinced the data being generated by these agencies was “authentic" and “not biased".

It is unclear how the government proposes to mandate and implement such audits as hundreds of different firms and organizations generate statistics and surveys on myriad topics.

Reactions from some such survey purveyors was decidedly mixed. “It is a good and laudable move as people are not trusting the data coming out from these agencies," says Richard Rekhy, chief operating officer at accounting and consulting firm KPMG. “We always have a struggle on the data part. However, the regulatory environment should not be introduced immediately. To start with, it should be self-regulatory and voluntary as it promotes compliance. Moreover, people who want to beat the system always find a way to do so. Moving ahead, it should be made compulsory."

Thomas Puliyel, president of the Market Research Society of India and president of IMRB International, notes that “most leading market research organizations are members of the (society, which) has laid down specific codes of conduct on how market research should be conducted, conclusions arrived at and reported on. It appears to be a duplication of effort for the government to also enter this field."

Madhukar Kamath, MD and CEO, Mudra Group, says: “I don’t know the contextual details of this move, but I feel that if the basic data is robust, then there should be no issue with its interpretation or innovative use by other parties."

The proposed audit would be on the lines of the certification from the International Standards Organization. If the proposal is actually implemented, private research agencies, be it in media, finance or consumer goods, where such surveys are commonplace, would be significantly impacted.

Sen, for one, believes this would help slow the proliferation of such agencies. “Most people who access data from private sources are really working on faith and trust."

The statistical audit, he says, will be done by a team of qualified government employees. As per Sen’s plans, officials, who are experts in statistical audit, will visit private organizations and check their systems with reference to methods of sample collection, collation and interpretation.

Laveesh Bhandari, who heads Indicus Analytics Pvt. Ltd, which puts out dozens of surveys, says the proposal is only good as long as it is voluntary. “It should not be made mandatory for firms in this business to get audited," he insists. “The serious players would anyway get themselves audited and get differentiated in the process."

Reports from the National Sample Survey Organization, published by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, are regularly used by firms such as IMRB, ORG-MARG, Hansa Research Group, Indicus Analytics, TAM Media Research as the basis for their own work.

Sen concedes that the government will find it difficult to implement its plan. Still, he says, “we can mandate this. It can always be done because standard setting is a function of the state. But it is better that the demand originates from the user community".

Citing TAM, which is widely used for measuring television audiences in India, Sen says: “Nobody knows that the sample that TAM Media Research is using is actually a representative sample. And crores of rupees are being bet both by the channels as well as the advertisers on those numbers."

L.V. Krishnan, CEO, TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd, said: “We have an open and transparent research system in place. In fact, we are the only research organization (in India) that has a dedicated measurement research team he-aded by a person who is a specialist in measurement survey science. We welcome any mo-ve to vet the way we function and conduct our research."

In a related move to improve its own data collection and reduce long delays between collection and dissemination, the ministry is also proposing to tie up with the national e-governance programme to use their information technology (IT) infrastructure for collecting grass roots data. The ministry is proposing to tap the IT network, which the ministry of communications and IT is creating, to promote e-governance in the country.

“It will not be possible for the statistical system to set up the IT network, which would enable us to gather this rural data," says Sen. “But now that the national e-governance plan is on, so that we will be getting IT infrastructure down to the block level, it will be much easier to capture data. We will not have to invent anything new. All we have to do is to set the standards so that the data collected by all the states is comparable."