For someone who had boxed for more than a decade, Pronab Sen, the slightly built, first chief statistician of India and secretary, ministry of statistics and programme implementation, doesn’t look much like an ex-athlete. But those who know him say that the pugilist training has come quite handy for a man who is known for never pulling his punches.

“Temperamentally, I am not well suited for administrative work," says Sen, in spite of what has clearly been a long track record in the government.

Sen has recently become India’s chief statistician after a two-and-a-half-year stint as the principal adviser in the Planning Commission (where he spent 13 years in all) and also heading the perspective planning division and the statistics and surveys division.

The commission role “was much more of a research, advisory-oriented function", he says. “Whereas here the bulk of the work is administrative. Although I wear two hats of statistician as well as the secretary, the fact is that the secretary’s position tends to dominate the chief statistician’s position."

Defying stereotypes: After joining the government as economic adviser in the department of electronics (1990-94), Sen has since then defied the stereotype of a bureaucrat, be it his preference for Charms, a cigarette brand more popular with college students, or his eclectic taste in music.

With India rapidly integrating into the global economy, calls for a robust statistical system, with relevant and current data, are mounting. Sen and his team are facing the challenge of not only overhauling an inefficient statistical system, but also trying to make it much more timely.

Indeed, his former boss at the commission, deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, says Sen is “moving to a new and important assignment and is a right man for the job, as good planning and policy-making depends on high quality of data".

Sen is very matter of fact about the challenges ahead.

“Data is always relevant," he says. “Much depends upon your ability to access it and use it. What has happened in India is that by and large, the statistical system was developed to cater to the needs of the government. It was not designed to address the needs of the private sector. The net result is that the kind of data we collect is dependent upon the demands that are placed on us by different ministries, state governments and so on, with practically no interaction with the private sector at all."

Now, Sen wants to change all of that.

He is proposing standards for private data collection agencies and periodic audits from a government agency to ensure that these are adhered to. To improve the government’s own data collection and reduce delays between collection and dissemination, the ministry is also proposing to tie up with the national e-governance programme to piggy back on their information technology (IT) infrastructure for collecting grass roots data.

“Nutrition among women and children are the areas of concern and these are the two groups that we need to concentrate upon," Sen says, linking the lack of good data to problems in policymaking and delivery of services.

“If you really believe that there is a good new idea and you repeat it often enough, you will find three to five years down the road the idea does gets accepted," he says. “There are frustrations, but when we think about a large system, and you accept the fact that your role is limited, you have really one or two choices. One choice is just quit and the other way is to stick around and do whatever you can."

It will be easier said than done though, even for Sen.

He will have to change behaviours and mindsets among the government’s statistics collection staff. Equally challenging for Sen is the growing attrition among field staff—and no replacements are forthcoming.

“The major challenge that we face today for data gathering is how quickly and effectively we move towards a record-based data system," he says. “Internationally, particularly in the developed countries, 70-80% of the data collected is through records, through things such as balance sheets, administrative records, which various ministries maintain and only 20-30% is done through census and surveys. In India, the ratio is exactly the opposite. Census and surveys are good, but they are extremely expensive and take time. That is what we need to think through. The systems adopted in the West are not applicable in India because 70% of our population lives in villages. The way we capture data has to be different."

Wanting to do something different was what led Sen to the government, though it wasn’t necessarily where he set out to be.

The second son of economist Samar Ranjan Sen, the younger Sen grew up in New Delhi, the adopted home of his parents who had moved from what was then East Pakistan in early 1948. Sen studied at St Columba’s and later graduated from St Stephen’s College, before heading to George Washington University in 1972 for an MBA.

Sen went on to do a PhD in economics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and wrote his dissertation on “Imported inputs and the theory of currency devaluation".

He would then spend the next three years as management consultant in Washington, DC. “In the West, there is a very strong sense of professionalism, which, by and large, is lacking out here," says Sen. “That is the biggest difference. The advantage here is that there is a huge amount of flexibility, which you do not find there."

The stint also helped Sen firm up his long-term plans.

“Those three years made me quite sure that this was not what I wanted to do with my life," he says. “At the end of the day, all of us want to experience the feeling of having contributed. Three years in private sector, I did not get that feeling," he adds.

Sen joined the government in 1990, after teaching and research stints at Johns Hopkins, the Delhi School of Economics and the New Delhi think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, among others.

“Joining the government was really the first step towards concretely fulfilling what I was looking for, which is to contribute substantively," says Sen. “I was quite clear that I was not interested in doing civil services because I feel that I am not naturally inclined towards administration."

Sen joined the Government of India as economic adviser in the department of electronics (1990-94) and since then has defied the stereotype of a bureaucrat, be it his preference for Charms, a cigarette brand more popular with college students, or his eclectic taste in music. For Sen, American rapper and multiple Grammy aware winner Eminem is a “genius", but that doesn’t mean Sen isn’t at ease with a Miles Davis or a Stan Getz jazz album. Or, for that matter, Indian classical music.

“I have been through the entire heavy rock and hard metal stuff," he says. “I listen to rap, hip-hop and used to go to live concerts. Living in Baltimore gave me an exposure to jazz."

And when it comes to Hindi music, Sen is very clear about his taste. Kajra Re Kajra Re from the Hindi film Bunty Aur Babli is “the single greatest piece of Hindi dance music", he says. “It is amazing. The blend is wonderful and the fact that the rhythm keeps changing, makes it one of the most interesting piece of music I have listened to in recent times," Sen adds.