Indian statistics need to be rescued from the scepticism that has shrouded them for some years, but is a merger of the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) the answer? The creation of a unified National Statistics Organization is not a new idea. A proposal to this effect has been around since 2005 under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, when a committee headed by C. Rangarajan issued a report recommending such a move. As the state’s top data gathering and crunching agencies, both have similar roles but focus on different metrics. While the CSO offers data on economic growth and industrial production, the NSSO conducts surveys to get numbers for employment, consumption, expenditure and so on as inputs for policy making. They both operate under the same ministry, that for statistics and programme implementation, and enthusiasts of the plan are convinced that joint operations with eliminate duplication, activate synergies and result in efficiency.
Will that happen? The devil may be in the details. The 2005 plan had envisaged an NSO that would function ‘as the executive wing of the Government in the field of statistics and act according to the policies and priorities, laid down by the [National Statistical Commission]’. Set up in 2006, the NSC was expected to act as an independent apex body that would oversee all statistical exercises. For a variety of reasons, including turf tussles, the plan did not work out as expected. The latest proposal, however, appears to leave NSC oversight entirely out of the picture. Yet, it’s possible that an alternative body is being contemplated to watch the NSO’s work. There is little clarity on this aspect right now. As a result, it’s also unclear exactly how autonomously India will gather and crunch data under the new system. Given the doubts held by many observers over office numbers on key measures of national well-being, it would be best if a proper exposition is made of all tools in use by government statisticians so that others can use raw data to cross check the figures put out by New Delhi. For our numbers to regain their credibility, a mere merger will not suffice.