The uncomfortable truth that emerged from the leaked report of the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) is that rural poverty increased substantially between 2011-12 and 2017-18 for the first time in five decades. That this happened during a period of claimed high growth should have led to more research on what went wrong. Instead, there have been attempts to raise questions on the credibility of the data and discredit the National Statistical Office (NSO).

The attempt to discredit the NSO follows a pattern, starting from the leak of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) reports. Fearing more leaks, the NSO has released reports on drinking water, sanitation, education, health and disability. These surveys, which are routine, debunk many claims of the government. Most notable is the finding that only 71.3% households have access to toilets, as against the Centre’s claim of more than 95%. Many of these surveys have reported facts that are inconvenient to the government of the day.

This has been the case earlier as well. However, there has never been an attack on the NSO, as has been the case since the leaked PLFS report. So much so that the chief statistician of India (CSI), along with another secretary of the government of India, has argued that responses to survey questions suggest a diminishing sense of nationalism. In one stroke, a hundred thousand respondents have had their nationalism questioned simply because the survey responses do not match administrative data. The assumption seems to be that there can never be anything wrong with administrative data and contradictory findings are dubious.

Why should surveys match administrative data? If survey reports are to reproduce administrative data, there is no need of independent surveys. The very purpose of these exercises is to validate the administration’s information. As sample data is collected and processed anonymously, surveys have a credibility that administrative data cannot always claim. Given that government officials, including secretaries, are rewarded or punished on the basis of administrative data, there is an inbuilt incentive to manipulate it. Take the case of the difference between survey data and administrative data on the public distribution system (PDS), on which arguments were made that its delivery mechanism suffers from corruption and leakages. This debate led to serious research on the functioning of the PDS, leading to the enactment of the National Food Security Act. In all such cases, data gaps have encouraged more research and the improvement of government programmes.

In most countries, differences between administrative data and independent surveys are seen as a sign of inefficiency, corruption or leakage without the risk of being labelled less nationalist.

Surveys also produce estimates that an administration cannot obtain on its own. Our consumer surveys are unique, as they are the only source of direct estimates of household consumption based on data collected from actual consumers. Any divergence between sales or production numbers available to the administration and what surveys say is not always because the latter are faulty. Consider airline passenger tickets, car sales or mobile users. These include purchases by households, governments, corporations and other such entities. While these are items of individuals use, they do not strictly constitute household consumption if they’re provided by the employer. The CES only captures what households buy.

It is nobody’s case that there are no problems with surveys. These issues are known and the NSO has been experimenting with different recall periods and sampling strategies to get its estimates as accurate as possible. There have also been problems with sampling. CES surveys tend to underestimate the consumption of the rich. However, differences with administrative data have never been a reason to alter the survey’s methodology or reject results.

Why discredit the government’s own statistical system? It has a global reputation for the quality of its surveys. Is it because most of these are speaking truth to power? The credibility of NSO surveys lies in the independence and integrity of the NSO, which, it seems, insists on reporting what was found even if the entire survey gets shelved in the process. Governments have a vested interest in questioning the credibility of inconvenient data. But it is unfortunate if those entrusted with upholding and defending the integrity of the institution also start discrediting it.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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