New Delhi: India’s chief statistician T.C.A. Anant has called for a “data revolution", as India gets ready for a post-MDG (Millenium Development Goal) era. On 31 December 2015, the deadline for meeting the MDGs—set at the United Nations with the concurrence of all countries— will expire, giving way to 17 new sustainable development goals with 169 targets.

Anant said the statistical and the policymaking communities must now work towards setting “measurable goals". He was speaking on Wednesday at the launch of “India and the MDGs - towards sustainable future for all", a report assessing India’s performance in achieving the global targets.

India, according to the report, still has more than 300 million people living in extreme poverty, with no access to basic services such as healthcare, education, sanitation and electricity.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why is it a challenge to get timely health-related data for the health sector?

We don’t get timely information on health and this is a huge concern. But we have been investing a lot in improving the database available. All official data comes from two approaches—administrative records (from hospitals, etc.) and surveys. In developing countries, administrative systems are weak and their records are poor. Additionally, surveys are expensive and the ability to conduct surveys for all different types of information is limited. There can be no escaping the fact that we need to strengthen our administrative system for the purposes of health. National Rural Health Mission developed a database system and there has been significant improvement at least in generating data from government hospitals but private providers are not a part of this system. The AIDS programme is a great example of how massive investments were made to get accurate data. Health ministry has ambitious plans to generate district-level data but I need to emphasize that the survey-based approaches are a short-term goal. If we need rich data, it will have to come from administrative approaches, which need to be expanded to cover the private sector as well.

Given that India is not a data rich country, how do we know our performances under the Millennium Development Goals are accurately measured?

We still have a lot of gaps when it comes to assessing our performance. Many of the goals have dated information or limited information. In some cases, the true information about our performance under some goals will not be known before 2016 or 2017. The statistical community has worked hard to compile the available information on India’s MDG performance. There are larger initiatives underway. Increasingly, if we, as a country, are serious about our commitment to the development agenda, we will have to invest in a data revolution. We need to strengthen our ability to measure performance. Otherwise, our commitments will remain just talk.

What do you mean by data revolution?

With our current approaches, we may be able to demonstrate sufficient progress but if the underlying indicators are not satisfactory, we will not be able to convince the community that the progress is, in fact, real. The data revolution is not just an attempt at gathering more information, carrying out more surveys or investing more in expensive data mining techniques. This is an important investment in the best way to measure our progress. Particularly in the context of health and poverty, there has been commendable progress but it is also important to incorporate these learnings into official measurement systems, which remains a challenge. We take measurement as given, as if once a goal is defined, there already exists a way to measure it. We need to ask, “are these measurable?" when we formulate goals. Some of these goals may make sense in public policy but they may not be measurable. Developing countries face enormous challenges of data, which must reflect in the policy community’s debates on which goals to adopt while setting post-2015 development agenda.

Can you give us an example of a goal that was not measurable?

Poverty line—one of the best examples. In the global approach to measuring poverty, India plays a big role. The globally adopted measuring pattern, adopted by the World Bank, was driven by India’s approach to poverty measurement in the 1970s. I plead mea culpa to the current measurement approach.

I think the current measurement approach (which measures through income-based criteria) is fundamentally flawed. It may reveal a timeline of progress and given the current target, may even be a success but the real question to ask is—“Is this the correct way to measure poverty?" Poverty is a “stock" concept. Income, expenditure are “flow" concepts. Currently, we measure “stock" through “flow" measurement approaches. It is not about India alone deciding a different approach. India cannot do it unilaterally. We need a global agreement on the topic.

Would it be better to have micro-targets instead?

How do you convert a national goal into a micro-target at state or sub-state level? If you manage to convert, would these targets be same across different parts of country? It is a challenge to frame targets in a country with so much disparity across states. But this is something we need to debate. While setting the framework for Niti Aayog, decentralized decision making and formulating decentralized objectives was the eventual ambition. This is an important challenge ahead of us.