NSSO data

Taking control of data

Print edition : June 21, 2019

D.V. Sadananda Gowda, who was the Minister for Statistics and Programme Implementation in the previous Modi government. Photo: Kamal Narang

R.B. Barman, former chairperson of the NSC.

P.C. Mohanan, who resigned as acting chairperson of the NSC after the PLFS report was not released in January. Photo: K.V.S. GIRI

By merging all major statistical bodies and bringing them under one Ministry, the government has compromised their autonomy and the future of independent data collection.

ON May 23, even as the nation was preoccupied with the Lok Sabha election results, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation issued an office order integrating its statistics wing comprising the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) into the main Ministry and merging the two entities to form the National Statistics Office (NSO). Further, the office order clarified, the NSO would be headed by the Secretary (Statistics and Programme Implementation), with director generals of the various divisions reporting to the Secretary.

On the face of it, the exercise appeared to be a harmless attempt at reorganising disparate statistical divisions headed by independent Directors General under one statistical organisation called the NSO and subsuming all of them under the Ministry’s administrative control. But there is more to it than meets the eye.

First, much of the reorganisation was aimed at the NSSO, whose report on labour force data (Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS)—July 2017-June 2018) was not released earlier this year; the report itself was an exercise that the National Statistical Commission (NSC) and the Ministry had recommended in the first place. The data were collected by the NSSO. The survey report, whose findings portrayed a grim picture of the state of unemployment in the country, was submitted to the NSC in December last year but it was not released despite the go-ahead from the acting chairperson of the NSC. The acting chairperson and a member of the NSC resigned in protest as they believed the government was undermining the NSC’s authority and credibility. The PLFS was finally released five months later, soon after the new government took office, with no explanation given for the delay.

The office order to reorganise the statistical divisions was issued on May 23 with the approval of the (incumbent) Minister of a (caretaker) Union government. The restructuring, which was done on the approval of the Minister and outlined in the order, was meant to “streamline and strengthen the present nodal functions of Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation with respect to Indian Official Statistics System and to bring in more synergy by integrating its administrative functions within the Ministry”.

Targeted at NSSO

Interestingly, the thrust of the restructuring appeared to be directed more towards the NSSO. Apart from merging the CSO and the NSSO to form the NSO, the government has decided to rename the NSSO’s data processing division (DPD) as Data Quality Assurance Division (DQAD), which has the responsibility of bringing about improvements in survey data as well as data of non-survey sources such as the economic census and administrative statistics. The DQAD would be “suitably strengthened through re-skilling and deployment of existing personnel,” the order stated. The NSSO had four divisions, including the DPD. The DPD was headquartered in Kolkata and, along with five other data processing centres, was responsible for sample selection, software development, validation and tabulation of the data collected through surveys. It was also responsible for processing the data of the PLFS. The renaming of the division indicates a major shift in roles and function—from its primary role of data processing to data quality assurance. The order further said that the NSSO’s field operations division would now be a subordinate office of the Ministry and all other divisions of the CSO and the NSSO and the administrative wing would exist as divisions of the Ministry.

The work allocation of the three Directors General occupying different posts in different statistical divisions would also be “modified for better functional efficiency”, the order said. This is clearly an attempt at centralising and increasing the direct control of the Ministry and the government over statistical bodies and survey organisations.

Undermining the NSC

P.C. Mohanan, a career statistician and former acting chairperson of the NSC, who along with his colleague quit the NSC in protest, told Frontline that the Rangarajan Commission’s report (on the setting up of a National Statistical Commission (NSC) in September 5, 2001) had recommended that the NSC work as a Department of the Ministry of Statistics with the CSO and the NSSO as two of four proposed offices under it, the other offices being a computer centre and a consultancy wing.

He said that while implementing these recommendations in June 2005, the government set up the NSC and ordered that there would be a single entity called the National Statistical Organisation with the NSSO and the CSO as its two separate wings. The organisation was to act as per the policies and priorities set by the NSC. The Chief Statistician of India (CSI) was to head the NSO and enjoy the powers of a secretary to the Government of India and also function as the NSC’s Secretary.

“Possibly, this dual role was to ensure synergy between the NSC and the NSO. Subsequently, the government decided to dissolve the governing council of the NSSO that had overseen the technical functioning of the NSSO since the beginning and transferred these oversight functions to the NSC,” he said. A draft National Policy on Official Statistics, which envisages a larger role for the NSC, is with the government, he added.

“The present arrangements are not the same as recommended by the Rangarajan Commission. The restructuring order is made to appear to be an innocuous internal exercise to streamline the functioning of the CSO and the NSSO. However, it has the potential to take away the independence of these technical bodies by making them part of the Ministry and subsuming their identities. A draft National Policy was indeed prepared by the Ministry. As I noted at the time of my resignation, this draft was never brought to the commission. At this moment I feel that there is a lack of clarity on the order and its intent and on the future course of action of the government,” Mohanan said.

He also said the clarification issued by the Ministry that all divisions would work as before and that the role of NSC remained unaltered did not elaborate on how the independence and functional autonomy of the statistical system would be protected in the new set-up. The efforts initiated by the Rangarajan Commission to isolate the statistical system from the government would become a little more stretched, he added.

According to Mohanan, the latest order was aimed at streamlining and strengthening the nodal functions of the Ministry in official statistics and integrating the administrative functions within the Ministry.

“The CSO and the NSSO are merged in the NSO and will be an integral part of the main Ministry. The NSO is headed by the Secretary (S&PI). All divisions of the CSO and the NSSO, except the Field Operations Division of the NSSO, are to be divisions of the Ministry,,” he said.

Subsuming wings

According to him, in effect, the order gives the impression that the distinct identities of the CSO and the NSSO are now subsumed within the Ministry. Until now, the CSI headed the statistical offices and also performed the functions of the Secretary. The present restructuring had only the Secretary (S&PI) as head of the NSO, whose name did not appear in the organogram.

“For one, the order has created doubts among experts as to how the NSC will play its role and set policies and priorities for the NSO when all the divisions are an integral part of the Ministry. Second, the concerns are more in the case of the NSSO, which, from 1971 onwards, had external technical oversight and catered to the data needs of not just the CSO but also other Ministries, and also responding to the needs of researchers. It was a unique institution enjoying complete autonomy in its work while being part of the government,” he said.

Mohanan felt that reforms advocated by the Rangarajan Commission made it all the more imperative to insulate the statistical system from the government in order to maintain its autonomy. There were now many models available, especially the model followed in the United Kingdom, to legislate for achieving this.

“The enormous advancement in the field of data collection processing and dissemination calls for statistical organisations to be more flexible than conventional government agencies,” he said and referred to the universally accepted United Nations principles of official statistics which the government had adopted and published in its official gazette.

Principle number one, for instance, states: “Official statistics provide an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society, serving the government, the economy and the public with data about the economic, demographic, social and environmental situation. To this end, official statistics that meet the test of practical utility are to be compiled and made available on an impartial basis by official statistical agencies to honour citizens’ entitlement to public information.”

Mohanan said: “The idea of independent oversight follows from this. There are several examples of a government interfering in national statistics and affecting the credibility of published data, and the latest oft-quoted example is that of Greece, where one of the reasons for its economic collapse was fudging of economic data. Our own case of not releasing uncomfortable data as per the pre-decided calendar is an example [why we need] to insulate the statistical system from government control,” he said.

Asked why it was important to keep the NSSO independent of the Ministry, Mohanan said surveys were one way of independently verifying data produced by government machinery, apart from collecting data not generally available from other sources. “India is a country with the longest history of independent sample surveys, pioneered by Prof P.C. Mahalanobis and appreciated the world over. It [NSSO] is the only survey agency that has pan-India coverage and has permanent survey personnel to collect data. All along it has been overseen by independent bodies like the Governing Council or the NSC that has helped to maintain its credibility among data users, the majority of whom are from outside the government,” he said.

No other country has a separate survey agency like the NSSO capable of collecting data on any socio-economic topic. However, every major country has a regular labour force survey usually undertaken by that country’s central statistical office.

Speaking to Frontline, R.B. Barman, former chairperson of the NSC and former president of the Indian Econometric Society, said the apparent reason given for the amalgamation was to consolidate operations for improving time lag on release of data, for which there was some scope.

“Whether this will affect the NSO’s independence depends on how the NSO is ring-fenced from political interference. As India is committed to the United Nations code of conduct on independence of official statistics, I hope that measures will be taken to enhance the credibility of data, enhancing our prestige as the largest democratic country,” he said.

On the need to insulate the NSO from government influence, he said that a country’s statistical system should have commitment to produce high-quality data free of any influence to ensure that the estimates reflect the reality truthfully.

“As the performance of the government is reflected in these statistics, it has to maintain an arm’s-length distance from producers of official statistics while supporting them fully for professional excellence. There are examples to follow to insulate the official statistical system from uncalled for government interference. This is an institutional reform all of us should pursue vigorously at all levels. The country needs an Act to clearly spell out the responsibilities of the NSC and the checks and balances required for their independent, effective and efficient functioning,” he said.

He added: “The NSO should come directly under a fully independent NSC. For the purpose of accountability of the NSC on its performance, the Act [governing the NSC] should have a provision to assess it and report to Parliament through the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs. The NSC should have the power to enforce high quality of produced statistics through audit under a code of practice, and decide whether such output can be relied upon as expected of official statistics. These standards are set as norms, which the OECD countries are obligated to follow. India needs to set such a high standard to enhance credibility,” he said.

The order of May 23 does not make any reference to the NSC, which was envisaged as the apex advisory body on statistical matters by the draft National Policy on Statistics.

Even if the NSC, headless as it is, was given statutory backing, its role under the new restructured format would have to be reinvented.

The NSO was to come under the NSC, but being a part of the Ministry, most of the concerns regarding the autonomy of data gathering and evaluating bodies remain as they are.