It is a much-anticipated time of the year, with the presentation of the Union Budget around the corner. A key document that goes along with it is the Economic Survey, presented a day before the Budget. While my team and I began putting together this year’s Economic Survey, I wanted to delve deeper into its history and importance. When was it started, and how has its progress been? What is its stated objective? What is its useability for different sets of people? How can we make it more informative and reader-friendly? Does the government of any other country also come out with a document like this? Here is what my little research led me to. I also talk about how my journey has been while being at the helm of preparing the first such survey in my tenure as Chief Economic Adviser.
So, the first question is well answered in the preface to the 2021-22 survey, where the former Principal Economic Adviser talks about the history of the Economic Survey going back to 1950-51 and how it has evolved from a brief outline of economic developments of the year gone by into a lengthy present-day document. It has evolved with changing times. The document has come to be attached to the Office of the Chief Economic Adviser (CEA) of the government. Each CEA has tried to leave his mark on the document in his tenure, bringing his perspective and understanding of the economy into it, making each year’s document rather unique and richer for it. For example, some recent surveys started to have some themes attached to them. The 2017-18 survey was in pink colour, in solidarity with women who suffer violence, advocating gender equality. The surveys written during the tenure of K. V. Subramanian were sprinkled with quotations from ancient scriptures and made for interesting reading.
Coming to the next one, it is not mandatory for the government to prepare and present an Economic Survey to Indian Parliament. It is a practice of good governance to self-evaluate the country’s economic well-being before the annual Budget exercise. The document serves the purpose of stock-taking. Further, it holds significance as it acquaints citizens with the state of the economy and informs them of key economic decisions of the government which have a bearing on their lives.
It contains forecasts of the country’s economic growth, which grabs the most attention, although all economic forecasts are effectively conditional statements. The attention that this single number typically gets, to the relative neglect of the rest of its content, needs reflection. The publication reviews the overall economic development over the past financial year by analysing and providing detailed statistical data on all aspects and sectors of the economy, ranging from industry, agriculture and services to the external sector, financial sector, prices, physical and social infrastructure, etc. While each ministry/department/regulator has its annual report, which offers an overview of their respective activities over a year, the Economic Survey pulls them together in one ‘master’ document. It serves as a go-to resource for many. For a researcher or student, it provides a bird’s-eye view of happenings in the economy in terms of all possible economic parameters. Also, it has a treasure trove of data provided in various chapters and a comprehensive statistical appendix. It enriches policy debates with data and evidence.
Do other countries undertake such a stock- taking exercise and present an annual economic report? Some countries have the tradition of an annual economic outlook/review/survey document. For example, in the US, the Council of Economic Advisers releases an Economic Report of the President, which includes the annual report of this US council. Till 2005, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe published an Economic Survey of Europe, which provided a comprehensive analysis of macroeconomic and structural developments in the region and its member countries. Some Scandinavian countries, such as Norway, Finland and Sweden, release economic surveys or reviews. This practice of self-analysis and information dissemination that provides citizens with the economic context to an annual budget-making exercise in most countries is testimony to its importance.
This year’s exercise has brought me much learning. One interacts with various ministries, regulators and experts to get their input to enrich my knowledge base. Each day, we would put on our thinking caps and think from a layman’s perspective how to write a survey that even non-specialist readers can understand. We also bore in mind the needs of more knowledgeable readers and have tried to bring in information and analyses that would interest them. So, can you expect another useful reading experience with this year’s Economic Survey? You be the judge. Your feedback would help prepare the next survey, and so on. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed assembling it.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is chief economic adviser to the Government of India. These are the author’s personal views.
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