In recent years, the credibility of some of the NSO’s data, particularly the results of various household surveys traditionally conducted by the National Sample Survey Office, has been shaken, with even senior government officials questioning their approach and results. File | photo credit: Reuters
The story so far: The Department of Statistics and Program Implementation has formed a new Standing Committee on Statistics (SCoS) to advise on official data generated by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This panel, chaired by the former head of the National Statistical Commission and India’s first chief statistician, Pronab Sen, will replace another committee headed by him that was formed in 2019 to advise on economic data.
How is the new committee different?
The Standing Committee on Economic Statistics has been mandated to examine the framework of economic indicators such as those relating to the industrial and service sectors, as well as statistics on the labor force. This meant that its focus was limited to looking at high-frequency data like the Industrial Production Index (IPI) and the Consumer Price Index (CPI), with the exception of surveys and counts like the Economic Census, the Annual Industrial Survey, and the Periodic Labor Force Survey. The SCoS, according to the order issued by the ministry on July 13, has “enhanced terms of reference” which allow it to advise the ministry not only on all existing surveys and datasets, but also to identify areas where there are data gaps, suggest ways to fill them, and conduct surveys and pilot studies to refine new approaches to collect better data. The new committee is also half the size of the 28-member panel that reviewed economic data.
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Sen is accompanied by seven scholars, including former Institute of Economic Growth professor Biswanath Goldar, National Council for Applied Economic Research professor Sonalde Desai and Indian Institute of Statistics professor Mausami Bose. “Traditionally the ONS used to appoint committees to advise on survey design and methodology,” said a veteran statistician. “However, this panel has a broader remit as it can also work proactively on matters beyond investigations for which the department seeks their advice,” he pointed out. For example, one of the agenda items of the SCoS is to explore the availability of administrative statistics that can be useful for surveys and generate more data.
Why is it important?
In recent years the credibility of some of the ONS data, particularly the results of various household surveys traditionally conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), has been shaken, with even senior government officials questioning their approach and results. In 2019, the government decided to throw away the results of two large ONSS household surveys carried out in 2017-2018 – to assess the levels of employment and consumption expenditure of Indian households – saying they suffered from “data quality issues”. The real rationale for withholding the results of the latest surveys, conducted shortly after demonetization and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), is believed to be that they revealed household distress. A similar dilemma faced policymakers when these surveys, conducted every five years, revealed a not-so-exciting picture when conducted in 2009-2010, shortly after the global financial crisis. But the government went ahead and published these findings and decided to do further surveys in 2011-2012 to filter out the adverse effects of the 2008 crisis.
However, after the 2017-18 surveys were scrapped, a new Household Consumption Expenditure Survey (HCES) was only launched last July and its results could take at least another year to be finalised. In the absence of such data, India’s main economic indicators such as retail price inflation, GDP or even the extent of poverty, usually revised according to changing consumption trends, continue to be based on 2011-2012 figures and are divorced from contemporary ground realities. It requires the government to rely on proxy data such as Employees Provident Fund (EPF) account numbers to assess employment trends and the National Family Health Survey to assess poverty levels.
How can the SCoS bridge the trust gap around official data?
While it can advise the Department of Statistics on individual surveys and data sets, the new panel is also expected to help resolve issues raised “from time to time” about survey results and methodology. As survey design and functionality evolves, the panel may seek to educate data users about the nuances involved to ensure better interpretation of the numbers. Most importantly, the SCoS, which will help the NSO finalize the survey results and the Independent National Statistical Commission empowered to assess whether official data is fit for release, must seek to rebuild the credibility of Indian statistics.