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As we celebrate 75 years of India’s independence, there’s a lot to be proud of. My greatest source of pride is the country’s emergence as a statistical powerhouse just after 1947, when giants such as P.C. Mahalanobis and P.V. Sukhatme pioneered new methods of sampling, showing the world how a poor developing nation could produce reliable estimates of industrial and agricultural production. Statisticians from all over the world came to this newly-independent nation to learn from those masters.

That era is behind us. Today, the credibility of our statistical system lies in tatters, with people within and outside the government questioning different sets of statistics. Some commentators have gone on to compare—rather unfairly—India’s official statistics with those of China, a dictatorship where statistics tend to reflect what the rulers want them to.

The sorry state of India’s statistical system doesn’t reflect well on our democracy. Statistics are the building blocks of almost all arguments and debates in a democracy. If we lack statistics that we can all trust, we lose the basis for democratic engagement. With reliable statistics, we can at least agree on the nature and depth of India’s socio-economic ailments even if we continue to disagree on the cures.

Regaining the lost glory of our statistical system won’t be easy. But a few critical steps can restore confidence in the official statistical machinery and help improve the state of our democracy and economy. So, here’s a short statistical wish list for the New Year.

Wish No. 1: We get the survey data we need.

It is widely acknowledged today that the pandemic’s impact has been unequal. Several reports suggest that small firms in the informal sector and poorer households saw large income losses. That could explain why the economy’s consumption engine has not gathered full steam yet. Before taking corrective steps, we need credible data on the informal sector and on consumption patterns. A detailed National Sample Survey (NSS) round on unincorporated enterprises will throw much-needed light on the state of the informal economy. A consumer expenditure survey will tell us how households across different economic classes have fared. To make sense of current consumption numbers, we need comparative data from past rounds. Such data is publicly available only for the 2011-12 round, but not for the last round in 2017-18. At least now, that dataset should be released.

Wish No. 2: We get a statistical regulator that inspires trust and confidence.

The 2017-18 consumption dataset was suppressed despite the chairman of the National Statistical Commission (NSC) advocating its release publicly. In the past, too, NSC members have been overruled or ignored by the statistics ministry.

A helpless and toothless statistical regulator doesn’t inspire public confidence in official statistics. What we need is an empowered statistical regulator that can standardize norms across data agencies and departments. And it should have the resources and authority to conduct periodic audits to ensure compliance with its strictures. Think of it as a statistical counterpart to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), with similar constitutional backing and autonomous funding. Most major economies in the world have institutionalized independent statistical audits. India remains an outlier in this regard.

Of course, a modern statistical regulator will have to go beyond the role of an auditor. It will have to be a statistical innovator as well, so that it can provide the right guidance to statistical agencies on how to incorporate newer databases into official statistical work.

A fair amount of thought has already gone into this issue. The Rangarajan commission first set out the broad structure for a National Statistical Commission (NSC) in the country in the early 2000s. It was based on its recommendations that the first NSC was constituted in 2006, with a plan to provide statutory backing to it within a year. But even after 15 years, the NSC Bill hasn’t been enacted yet.

The most comprehensive draft legislation in this regard was framed by a 2011 NSC-appointed committee headed by the legal luminary, N.R. Madhava Menon. This panel envisaged a powerful NSC with independent funding that would be answerable to Indian Parliament and the wider public, rather than to the government of the day. Successive drafts prepared by the statistics ministry have diluted several provisions of the original Menon committee report (see ‘The battle to save India’s statistical system’, Mint, 4 February 2020), but even those diluted versions haven’t come close to getting enacted.

Wish No. 3: The Indian public gets to access India’s public data trove.

Much of India’s administrative datasets, funded by public money, remain out of bounds for the public. As a previous column (see ‘The promise and peril of big data in India’s policy space’, Mint, 21 December) pointed out, this amounts to a colossal public loss and has cost us dearly in the past. It is time to implement the country’s ‘open data’ policy in its true spirit, and release the data that has already being collected by various departments as part of their routine administrative work.

This task could be easily accomplished with an empowered NSC at the helm of India’s statistical system. But even without such an apex body, individual officials can take the initiative to throw open the datasets they ‘control’ for wider public use. The Vahan dashboard opened up by the road transport ministry is a good example of this. May such initiatives flourish in the New Year!

Pramit Bhattacharya is a Chennai-based journalist. His Twitter handle is pramit_b

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