It appears efforts by the Rangarajan Commission to isolate the statistical system from the government will be in vain
The need to insulate the statistical system from government influence is essential to maintain its autonomy
The need for timely and reliable statistics for policy formulation and planning cannot be over emphasised. There is reason to believe that with progressive dismantling of the system of economic controls, the quality of data flows has weakened. The government has decided to establish a National Statistical Commission (NSC) to critically examine the deficiencies of the present statistical system with a view to recommending measures for a systematic revamping of the system—Budget speech of Yashwant Sinha, minister of finance, 27 February 1999.
The setting for this announcement was the increasing integration of the Indian economy with the global economy, putting pressure on government to take a hard look at the official data systems. The additional need came from international agencies to improve the compilation of economic data by member countries.
The government order restructuring the statistics wing of the ministry of statistics and porgramme implementation (MoSPI) has the stated objective of streamlining and strengthening the nodal functions of MoSPI in official statistics and integrating the administrative functions. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) are now merged to be an integral part of the ministry and headed by the secretary (S&PI). The CSO and NSSO are no more separately functioning entities.
For one, the order has created doubts among experts as to how the NSC will play its role and set policies and priorities for the National Statistical Office (NSO), when all its divisions are an integral part of the ministry. Second, the concerns are more in the case of NSSO, which from the beginning had external technical oversight and catered to the data needs of not just CSO, but of other ministries as well, and took care of the needs of researchers.
The clarification by the ministry on functional status quo, however, does not clarify how the independence and autonomy of CSO and NSSO will be protected in the new set up. It appears that efforts by the Rangarajan Commission to isolate the statistical system from the government will be in vain, unless the government comes up with better arrangements.
The need to insulate the statistical system from government influence is essential to maintain its autonomy. There are now many models available to legislate for supporting these laudable principles. The UK Statistical Authority, a statutory office, oversees the functions of the Office of National Statistics that produces almost all key national statistics. The authority also does independent monitoring and assessment of official statistics through a code of practice for official statistics and accredit code-compliant statistics as ‘National Statistics’. Statistical organizations should be flexible, unlike conventional government agencies. The arrangements now made are not exactly those recommended by the Rangarajan Commission and have the potential to take away the independence of technical bodies by making them part of the main ministry. The original restructuring efforts started in 1999 and 20 years later, we have possibly moved closer to where we started.
P.C. Mohanan is the former acting chairman of National Statistical Commission.