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Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Why government has revamped the country’s statistical system

  • Merger of CSO and NSSO appears to be an attempt to undermine the independence of the statistical system
  • The decision to merge CSO and NSSO surprised observers, as it came at a time when India’s official statistical system was being questioned for its independence, as well as credibility

NEW DELHI : As the country was glued to the television sets to find out the results of the general election on 23 May, the director of the coordination and publication division of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation (Mospi), Chandradeep Kumar Jha, signed an order that could have fundamentally changed the characteristics of the statistical system in India.

The order was regarding the merger of the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and National Sample Survey Office under Mospi into a single entity, the National Statistical Office (NSO), apparently to streamline and strengthen the nodal functions of the statistics ministry. Mospi officials said the order derived its power from a cabinet decision of 2005, which was kept in abeyance for unknown reasons to comply with the recommendations of the Rangarajan Committee report on building a robust statistical system.

The decision surprised observers, as it came at a time when India’s official statistical system was being questioned for its independence, as well as credibility. The back-series data released in November 2018, which showed that the Indian economy grew at an average 6.67% in the nine years ended 31 March, 2014, when the UPA was in power, and slower than the 7.35% achieved in the four years ended 31 March 2018, with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, created a stir as the data was released by the NITI Aayog instead of the CSO. In January, two members of the National Statistical Commission, including acting chairman P.C. Mohanan and member J.V. Meenakshi, resigned from their posts, alleging interference by the government, including refusal to release the employment survey data. A leaked copy of the employment survey which now has been made public showed unemployment at a 45-year high, which was contested by the government. Experts have also alleged that the GDP series with the current base year of 2011-12 have overestimated national income. While the 23 May order gave the impression that a new NSO is being created, it seems the NSO always existed in official files, though hardly used in public domain. The annual report of 2010-11 of the Mospi says: “The ministry has two wings, one relating to statistics and the other programme implementation. The Statistics Wing re-designated as National Statistical Organisation consists of CSO, the Computer Centre and NSSO."

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As the country was glued to the television sets to find out the results of the general election on 23 May, the director of the coordination and publication division of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation (Mospi), Chandradeep Kumar Jha, signed an order that could have fundamentally changed the characteristics of the statistical system in India.

The order was regarding the merger of the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and National Sample Survey Office under Mospi into a single entity, the National Statistical Office (NSO), apparently to streamline and strengthen the nodal functions of the statistics ministry. Mospi officials said the order derived its power from a cabinet decision of 2005, which was kept in abeyance for unknown reasons to comply with the recommendations of the Rangarajan Committee report on building a robust statistical system.

The decision surprised observers, as it came at a time when India’s official statistical system was being questioned for its independence, as well as credibility. The back-series data released in November 2018, which showed that the Indian economy grew at an average 6.67% in the nine years ended 31 March, 2014, when the UPA was in power, and slower than the 7.35% achieved in the four years ended 31 March 2018, with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister, created a stir as the data was released by the NITI Aayog instead of the CSO. In January, two members of the National Statistical Commission, including acting chairman P.C. Mohanan and member J.V. Meenakshi, resigned from their posts, alleging interference by the government, including refusal to release the employment survey data. A leaked copy of the employment survey which now has been made public showed unemployment at a 45-year high, which was contested by the government. Experts have also alleged that the GDP series with the current base year of 2011-12 have overestimated national income. While the 23 May order gave the impression that a new NSO is being created, it seems the NSO always existed in official files, though hardly used in public domain. The annual report of 2010-11 of the Mospi says: “The ministry has two wings, one relating to statistics and the other programme implementation. The Statistics Wing re-designated as National Statistical Organisation consists of CSO, the Computer Centre and NSSO."


The restructuring is being seen as another effort to undermine the independence of the official system, with the government treating it just like another wing of the ministry. So far, the National Statistical Commission (NSC), the highest authority of official statistics, had been exercising the functions as the governing council of the NSSO. The functions include deciding the subjects for coverage in each NSS round, formulating methodology, and overseeing the processing of data and the release of survey reports and unit level data by the NSSO. There are fears that the merger is an attempt to make the NSC toothless and officially defunct. At present, it neither has a chairman or independent members, after the resignation of Mohanan and Meenakshi.

Pronab Sen, the former chief statistician of India and former chairman of the NSC, had said in 2005 that NSO was formed with two statistical divisions. “So, all the recommendations of the Rangarajan committee has already been complied with. The new order is now pushing it to the next level, where you do away with the existence of CSO and NSSO," he added.

“There was certain autonomy that NSSO enjoyed. That autonomy is gone. Now, all those decisions will be taken by the ministry, including the decision of whether to release or not to release a report." Sen added.

The order also seems to have altered the way the chief statistician of India is selected. The chief statistician of India needs to have “proven statistical and managerial experience in a large statistical organization", reads the advertisement inviting applications dated 28 February 2018, through which current chief statistician Pravin Srivastava was selected.

“Technically, the chief statistician is appointed as the head of the NSO and then he is given ex-officio charge of Mospi. Now, what they have done is interesting. In the order, there is no mention of chief statistician. Everybody reports to the secretary, Mospi. Now the secretary of Mospi will also hold the post of chief statistician. The selection will be for secretary and not for chief statistician. The chief statistician’s position required certain technical qualifications. Secretary Mospi has no such requirement. Any bureaucrat now can become the secretary of Mospi," Sen said.


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