Kozhikode: P.C. Mohanan resigned as acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission (NSC) last month in protest against the government allegedly suppressing the release of the unemployment survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).
A leaked copy of the report revealed that India’s unemployment rate spiked to a 45-year high of 6.1% in 2017-18, leaving government officials scrambling to contain the fallout of its damaging content. The findings of the report are all the more crucial because the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014 with the promise of creating 10 million jobs annually. The expose by the Business Standard newspaper also provided fodder to opposition parties just months ahead of national elections.
The government responded to the storm by terming the report a draft and, even, a fake.
In an interview, Mohanan dismissed the government’s claims, saying the report was final once the commission had cleared it. The episode has given an impression to the public that the government is trying to suppress uncomfortable data, he added. Edited excerpts:
India’s statistics minister Sadananda Gowda told Parliament last week that reports of the unemployment rate touching 6.1% in the NSSO survey is fake. Having headed the survey, how do you react?
I personally cannot agree. The NITI Aayog (a government think tank) was the first to say that it’s a draft report. Once I approve it, how is it a draft report? The NITI Aayog CEO (Amitabh Kant) gave some reason why this is not comparable, which is also misleading. When we approve a report, I am not going to give a figure which is not comparable with the other ones. Second, the concept of employment and unemployment are universally accepted. International Labour Organization prescribes the standards, we all follow it.
The government also keeps talking about collecting and processing the quarterly data from July to December 2018. Do you expect this to be much different from the annual survey’s findings?
I don’t expect much variation between the annual data and the quarterly data. All Western countries produce quarterly employment data. We have quarterly data on GDP, but no employment data. So, under a new system, we thought we will make an attempt to produce quarterly employment data. But in rural areas, quarter-to-quarter changes will hardly be any. So we thought, let’s try for the urban area at first. It is kind of a trial, for one or two years we will see. The annual reports are based on a first visit, the quarterly will depend on the second or third visit. They are two different surveys—in the sense that the quarterly reports you are readying are only for urban areas, whereas this 2017-18 NSSO survey is rural plus urban. In India, you don’t expect too many changes in annual employment from the quarter. Here we don’t give people unemployment allowance or security. And many of the people employed are in the government sector. So, quarter to quarter changes may not be that much and the annual data will have no relation with the quarterly.
Please walk us through what happened in your life since November last year, when things started getting sour between you and the government?
In November, we suddenly found that the NITI Aayog was taking the lead and announcing the GDP back series data. It has never happened. All these statistical releases are done by the Central Statistical Office, ministry of statistics or the NSSO. You can’t involve an outside agency like NITI Aayog; it is a political body. World over, there is the talk about the independence of official statistics. So, we all objected, saying that the process of getting an agency like NITI Aayog was not correct.
And then, on this particular report, NSSO was under high pressure. NSSO was supposed to release the report in December. We have an advisory committee that contains experts in employment, experts in sampling, etc. They cleared the report on 4 December, so immediately on the 5th when we met, we thoroughly discussed it and approved it. Millions of data were processed to produce those tables. Once we officially say this is approved by NSC, it is the director general of the NSSO who releases the report. He writes and signs the preface and drafts a press release and they put it on the website. I’m told they have completed all those processes except putting it on the website. So, it is approved officially but not made available to the public. I tried asking the secretary to the department, who is also the chief statistician, Praveen Srivastava, why it is so, but didn’t get a satisfactory reply. I myself and another member then travelled to Delhi. He was not committed about when to release. This was the last straw.
Previously, when the ministry prepared a national policy on statistics, they did not tell us. They circulated the policy and tried to get a cabinet approval. We protested saying it is the commission not the ministry which should be bringing the policy. Under guidelines for conducting any census or survey any ministry under the government of India, the commission’s approval is required. This gives a wrong impression to the public that the government is not releasing data which are not comfortable for them.
Your resignation in protest can be viewed as political prejudice. How do you respond?
I discussed with some of my people, some of the topmost figures in the academic world, on what to do next. The options for me were very few. One option was to keep quiet and continue. I didn’t want to do that. Another option was to remain in the commission and write letters of protest and all that. But that also may not have the desired effect. The government may not bother to respond to the letters for as long as they want. The last option was to resign, which I thought would be the right thing to do. I did not worry too much of the consequences, but I knew that it will be seen as a political act. It is a purposeful stand I took.
After resigning, I received a lot of messages from people and publications whom I consider academically eminent in India.
How bad is India’s unemployment?
Unemployment goes up and down in all countries. In India, traditionally we had very low unemployment that it is not at all visible, it is only in the leaked report that we are seeing a high. In India, if you hang around a place for some time and you always would get some work to do, it may not be much productive work. Those people were never recorded as unemployed. But educated employment has always been high in India, may not be as high as what we see now. Unfortunately, NSSO surveys are not very good in finding out why this has happened except say the growth of education. But we don’t ask the question why are you unemployed. Obviously, there is a mismatch between what the candidates are aspiring and what is available in the market. When I first saw the numbers first, I realised it may not be comfortable for the government. But I really understand why the government is so worried about us. We only provide the numbers, we are statisticians and not economists. They could have released the data and interpreted it in some manner to tackle the damage.
What are your thoughts on the jobs data?
Having personally seen the numbers, I think it is a story of rural transformation. Take for example, education. Instead of dropping out at a very early age, the percentage of women in the education system is very high until the age of 23-24. Earlier, it used to be only up to 17 years. So, there is a five-year shift; these people are no more in the labour force because they are still in the colleges. So that will reduce the labour force to some extent because they are out of the labour force. And earlier, the unemployment used to start at 20 onwards, now basically it is 24 onwards, so 20-24 they are in colleges and all that. So there’s a shift in the employment pattern from the report.
Is this is the biggest factor which increased unemployment?
No, there are other factors. Once they come out from the colleges, they are no more prepared to work on their father’s farm or looking after something and then get married and become housewives. I think awareness and aspirations have gone up. They don’t want to enter into a low-productive work. This immediately will pick up the unemployment ratio because they are not showing up in the unemployment-numerator.
But they don’t account for the downfall in workforce participation?
It has been coming down for some time. The previous one too showed that it has been drastically falling for rural females. If you look at more carefully, it is the marginal employment, for instance housewives who might work for morning one or two hours on the farm or in a shop. All of them are not full-time workers. This kind of job I personally find that there is a decrease.
On one hand, you see GDP improving, and on the other hand, you see unemployment also increasing. How do you make sense of this?
Yes, one might wonder that when fewer people are working, how is the GDP going up. But you must understand that somehow in India, the relationship between employment and GDP has been not that strong. The reduction of the jobs are mostly taking place in the small and micro enterprises and I think their contribution to the GDP is not that much, when compared to big corporates.
What’s the contribution of demonetization to the unemployment rise?
Unfortunately, it is difficult to correlate the NSSO survey with demonetization directly because of the reference period and other things. Demonetisation and stoppage of economic activities certainly contributed.
In general, do you think it has come to a stage where the government is informing the statisticians what the numbers should be rather than the table-makers telling the government what the numbers are?
This is a major worry for all of us, for all people concerned with credible data. The general feeling is that there is a carefully crafted narrative, with respect to GDP numbers, unemployment and so on. So if you find something that is not compatible with it, you are suppressing it. The NSSO is not a government product at all. The credibility of our numbers will not be affected even after this controversy because we have an established system to arrive at them. NSSO is the largest survey organisation anywhere in the world. Remember it was started in 1950s when no country had even thought of such a sample survey. Most of the international agencies have followed our methodology. NSSO is used by almost every academic worth his name. Nobel laureates like Angus Deaton have been some of its biggest admirers and also beneficiaries. So everybody knows the worth of this data. But I am slightly pained when the government, now, is trying to discredit the NSSO, its methodology etc. Doubts should not come into people’s minds as the government is publishing only what is favourable to them.