Home/ Opinion / Views/  Data wars: Why politicians need to stay out of it

Last week the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the country’s premier data collection agency, got mired in a fresh controversy. This time it turns out that a key database used to estimate the new series of the gross domestic product (GDP) or national income of the country is suspect. Several statisticians have been railing against the new series for awhile, but this time an official study conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), which is part of the CSO, has confirmed these apprehensions. The study reported in Mint (bit.ly/2Vh1syP) disturbingly found that more than a third of the companies that form part of the MCA-21 database used in calculating the GDP series was either wrongly classified or not traceable.

Like everything else, this debate, which should focus on the state of the official statistical systems, too has been overtaken by political rhetoric. This is understandable given that this is election time. Presumably, after 23 May, once the general election verdict is in, we can return to debating the need for a thorough overhaul of the country’s statistical apparatus. It has been long overdue. Very aptly this makeover, if it does happen, will take place a year after the 125th birth anniversary of P.C. Mahalanobis, the man popularly described as the father of Indian statistics.

Ignoring the problem is no longer an option. It is only going to get worse from here. The data collection system needs to be sanitized and the process made transparent—something that should be reviewed by a panel of experts and not bureaucrats. Statistics are key to economic and social planning, especially in the case of a country like India with myriad development objectives. As they say information is power. It is not a tool to showcase an incumbent government. In short, statistics are sacrosanct.

Worryingly the latest episode involving CSO comes in the backdrop of the needless controversy surrounding a survey on jobs conducted by NSSO that erupted in December. Though ready, the report which painted a dismal state of jobs in the country, was not released. The unconvincing official spin is that there were problems with the study and the numbers need to be reworked. But given that general elections were just round the corner, the charge that the report was suppressed by an incumbent regime stoked a political controversy.

To be sure, this lack of respect for official statistics is not true only of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The preceding Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime is equally culpable. As my colleague in a brilliantly reported story published in Mint last week (bit.ly/2Q4SR1a) disclosed, the decline has been long in the making. It is very similar to the efforts, including by the UPA, to curb the Right to Information to limit public disclosures. A former colleague had reported as much for Mint in 2007 (bit.ly/2LFZR5Y).

I recall how the UPA too had reacted defensively when this newspaper used NSSO data to highlight the abysmal record in job creation despite a near double-digit growth in GDP—the phenomenon of jobless growth. In fact, they had, like the NITI Aayog, the erstwhile Planning Commission, also argued that the existing systems did not capture employment data adequately.

In the final analysis, it is clear that politicians are the worst referees on statistics. There is an imperative need to create an independent statistical body that includes academics and experts to guide and review the statistical process in the country. Most importantly, this process needs to be made transparent and brought under the purview of the RTI. This is the only way in which institutional credibility in official data collection can be restored. The clock is already ticking.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns at livemint.com/capitalcalculus.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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Updated: 13 May 2019, 12:41 AM IST
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