Govt’s data apathy harming pandemic response: Experts

Policymakers are flying blind when it comes to designing an effective response to the pandemic

Tanay Sukumar, Pramit Bhattacharya
Published21 Jun 2021, 12:09 AM IST
Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

As the second wave of covid-19 ebbs in India and policy focus shifts to the economic damage caused by lockdowns for the second consecutive year, economists are finding it hard to assess the extent and spread of the damage.

The absence of benchmark survey data in the pre-pandemic period, the abrupt halt to most survey work during the pandemic, and the lack of any state initiative to conduct quick surveys have led to a dangerous data vacuum, they warned.

This means policymakers are flying blind when it comes to designing an effective response to the pandemic. For those who were forced to migrate or have lost their livelihoods, this has meant that they are unable to avail of much state assistance beyond free foodgrain.

Missing data

“In a large, diverse country like India, with different kinds and levels of deprivation in different parts of the country, you need robust data to design policy even during a normal year,” said Himanshu, an economist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “In a pandemic, the need is even more. But the government hasn’t been serious about data.”

Aggregate measures of economic activity such as the quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) figures do not provide any indication of the distribution of income across households and may generate a false sense of complacency, economists said.

The GDP data largely mirrors the performance of the corporate sector and extrapolates that performance to the rest of the economy. This problem has been more acute in the new GDP series introduced in 2014-15.

In normal years, such extrapolations may be okay, but in an abnormal pandemic year, the quality of GDP is much worse than what it would otherwise be, said Pronab Sen, chairman of the standing committee on economic statistics (SECS) of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation (Mospi).

While the periodic labour force survey (PLFS) has continued largely unhindered as it is based on a rotating panel of households that can be interviewed for subsequent rounds even over the phone, most other official household surveys were disrupted during lockdowns, Mospi officials said.

Mospi officials requested the health ministry to vaccinate survey enumerators on priority, but this was not done, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said on condition of anonymity. Queries sent to spokespersons of Mospi and the health ministry on Friday remained unanswered.

Vaccinations for frontline statistical staff would have helped expedite surveys, said R. Nagaraj, economist and visiting faculty at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Most economists acknowledge the methodological and exclusion issues with phone surveys but argue that having some data from such surveys could have led to more informed policymaking. Beyond survey data, the government could also have used other methods such as satellite and mobility data “if it wanted”, said Nagaraj.

“We had allowed our economic database to weaken even before the pandemic,” said Bharat Ramaswami, professor of economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat. “There is no official consumption data since 2011-12. If benchmark data were available prior to the pandemic, then we could have assessed the extent of the pandemic damage through quick surveys. But now, we don’t even have a baseline.”

The latest consumption expenditure survey conducted in 2017-18 was junked by the government in 2019, citing divergence with other administrative data sources, a decision that was questioned within and outside the statistical establishment even then.

“The consumption survey data can be useful even now,” said a former chairman of the National Statistical Commission (NSC), who did not want to be identified. “They (government officials) said there are problems with the survey methods, but these problems were there even in past rounds. This is the only dataset that allows us to see how the distribution of consumption has evolved across the country. Now, we have to wait many more years to find out, simply because it (the last round) did not show what the government expected it to show.”

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First Published:21 Jun 2021, 12:09 AM IST
HomeNewsIndiaGovt’s data apathy harming pandemic response: Experts

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