In Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, government enumerators are being harassed and prevented from collecting critical socio-economic data for the National Sample Survey (NSS) because of fears that this data will be used for NRC, according to a Mint investigation.
In Andhra Pradesh, a junior statistical official responsible for NSS data collection in Guntur district was attacked while attempting to collect data for the 78th round of the survey.
“He had gone for data collection with the municipal officer as per procedure but locals, including the local leader, misunderstood the purpose of the exercise. Even though we tried our best in conducting publicity, they were under the impression that this was the NRC. Other local government employees were also manhandled when collecting data for another issue," said L.L.N Charyulu, the enumerator’s manager and a sub-regional officer at the Guntur field office of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).
Since 1950, these surveys have formed the backbone of India’s statistical infrastructure. NSS data, including information on a range of socio-economic outcomes such as consumption and unemployment, is used to inform key government policy. The National Statistical Office (NSO), responsible for coordinating these surveys, did not respond to Mint’s queries on the disruptions to data collection.
Over the last two years, the government has been criticized for failing to release NSS data. This is the first time the data is in danger of not even being collected. “Almost all fieldwork, including the socio-economic survey 78th round, is at a standstill, especially in West Bengal, due to false claims by politicians alleging its connection with NPR (National Population Register) and NRC," a person close to the matter said. “Physical harassment of field officers is becoming a regular scenario now. If the situation persists, this would be the first time since 1950 that a socio-economic round of NSO would be declared as a casualty."
Things are so serious that in West Bengal, Chandan Bhadra, deputy director general of NSS’s West Bengal field office, has raised the issue of harassment with both the director general of the state police force and the state urban development ministry.
In his letters, seen by Mint, Bhadra sought government coordination and protection for NSS enumerators, who he said are struggling to collect basic data on education, sanitation and employment. “Recent escalation regarding some controversial issues viz. NPR, CAA, NRC and the like have spun the web of mistrust and acrimony" he wrote.
According to P.C Mohanan, the former NSSO chief who quit last year over the Centre’s failure to release jobs data, this disruption to data collection is unprecedented and worrying. “I’ve never come across NSS surveys being linked with issues like NRC. It is unfortunate and, to an extent, expected. It is affecting data collection. There is an atmosphere in which the enumerators’ task is risky. The government should go the extra mile in giving more publicity about NSS data collection," he said.
Fears around NRC could also dilute the quality of data that such surveys generate. If fears are tied to NSS, then the reliability of the surveys becomes questionable, according to Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India. Doubtful data would add pressure to a statistical system that has struggled with credibility in recent years.
NRC tensions could threaten the sanctity of even the Census data, considered the most reliable source for demographic and socio-economic information in India.
“Respondents might not be forthcoming with responses relating to their place of origin or previous place of stay because of fears of being excluded from the population register. I worry about how much of the Census data will be affected by giving different responses because of this," said Mohanan.