India must save NSO as risk of faith erosion looms large with repeated report withholding

Published: November 19, 2019 4:25:07 PM

If the credibility of the system is not restored then the outside world including the international organization will lose faith in Indian data adversely affecting the Indian image.

There are reports that the results of Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) conducted have been withheld whereas the report of the survey was ready for release in June 2019.
  • By- Rattan Chand

Sometime back, there were media reports about withholding the report of the 2017-18 labour force survey conducted by India’s National Statistical Office. The report was, however, released later. Now again, there are reports that the results of Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) conducted during 2017-18 have been withheld whereas the report of the survey was ready for release in June 2019. It is reported that the 2017-18 estimated per capita household consumer expenditure has shown a decline compared to the estimates of the earlier survey
conducted during 2008-09. The methodology of the 2017-18 CES is reported to be same as in 2008-09 round. This decline in the per capita expenditure could be genuine or it could be due to the investigators involved in data collection. It is learnt that large number of investigators from northern States were selected through an all India selection process and these along with locals were posted in States having languages other than they speak. It is a common knowledge that for collecting reliable information, knowledge of local language plays an important role and if the investigators are not well versed in local languages, they cannot do deep probing and collect correct and complete information thereby compromising data quality. This aspect, however, requires further analysis.

It is not the first time that the CES results are in controversy. In the CES conducted during 1999-00, the NSSO used a different recall period – the time span over which respondents are asked to recall consumption of various goods and services. Many economists argued that this made the results non-comparable with earlier rounds. Similarly, it was decided to conduct another CES in 2011-12 on the grounds that the results of the 2009-10 CES might have been
affected because of it being a drought year. But the reports of all these surveys were published. Withholding the report of any survey is not a healthy trend. In fact, the best way to resolve such controversies is to release and put all data in public domain where anybody familiar with the subject can undertake required analysis.

The independence of the statistical organization is a prerequisite for performing its function without bias and fear. The Indian Statistical System has been largely independent but of late its independence seems to be eroding. The National Sample Survey created in 1950 was reorganised into National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in 1970. For guiding and approving NSSO activities, a Governing Council (GC) functioned till 2005 when National
Statistical Commission (NSC) was formed and the functions of the GC taken over by the NSC. All functions such as deciding survey topics, formation of working groups, approving sampling design, questionnaires, tabulation plans, survey reports etc were ably handled by the GC and NSC.

However, in May 2019, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) was restructured and NSSO was merged with National Statistical Office, reporting to a Secretary. The survey organisation thus lost its autonomy and the reports are now cleared by the administration babus (instead of NSC) who have little time to go into voluminous reports and the rigour they require. The results not favouring the authorities can now be withheld on one pretext or the other. If the credibility of the system is not restored then the outside world including the international organization will lose faith in Indian data adversely affecting the Indian image. The need of the hour, therefore, is to restore the autonomy of the Indian statistical system by truly making the National Statistical Commission an autonomous organization vested with full authority in all statistical matters.

  • Rattan Chand is Director at EGROW Foundation.

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