The inability of gram panchayats – the basic administrative unit – to access data on residents living within their jurisdiction was the focus of attention at a national seminar at the Economic Analysis Unit at the Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore, on Thursday.

The seminar drew attention to the fact that twenty-one years after the passage of the landmark 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, which promised to usher in full-scale devolution of powers to gram panchayats, they lack not only authority and resources but access to data that would allow them to further development at the local level. The national seminar, attended by economists, statisticians and academics from various other disciplines, deliberated a manuscript titled, “A New Statistical Domain in India: An Enquiry into Gram Panchayat-Level Databases.”

A People’s List

The study, authored by Jun-ichi Okabe, Professor, Faculty of Economics, Yokohama National University, Japan, and Aparajita Bakshi of the Tata Institute of Social sciences, Mumbai, argued that the generation of a “People’s List” – a list enumerating all the people and households within a gram panchayat’s jurisdiction – is a fundamental prerequisite for the democratic administration at this level. They pointed out although the Census does gather the information, “unit level data” on persons and households are not available with panchayats. Without this information, “the panchayat’s public policies would be inefficient or discretionary with less objectivity,” the study observed. The study benchmarked the quality of the data that is available at the gram panchayat level by benchmarking them against the detailed village studies conducted by the Foundation of Agrarian Studies in one village each in Maharashtra and West Bengal.

The study pointed out that in 2001, National Statistical Commission, then headed by C. Rangarajan, currently Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, painted a pessimistic picture of the local-level statistical system in the country. However, in 2006, an expert committee headed by Abhijit Sen, Member, Planning Commission, recommended that gram panchayats “should consolidate, maintain and own village-level data.” The study pointed out the revised assessment of the data organising potential of the gram panchayat “opens up a new statistical domain for debate, discussion and study.” It divided the data that is required to be gathered by gram panchayats into three broad areas – data that is required for self-governance, data that is in line with the needs of public finance and data that is required for planning at the micro level for furthering economic development and social justice.

Data registries

Arguing against the over-reliance on sample surveys in India, Prof. Abhijit Sen pointed out that across the world, basic statistics is derived from registries, of births, of deaths, the issuance of driving licenses and other databases. “At every level, registries are the source of statistics across the world,” he pointed out. “While we built a good sample survey system in India, we did not build a registry system systematically for statistical use,” Prof. Abhijit Sen observed.

The discussion of how the “People’s List” could be built was lively. While the study suggested that the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme or the large scale BPL surveys could serve as a good starting point, others suggested that the elements of the National Population Registry, which is being built under the aegis of the Union Home Ministry, could provide the basis for the list.

Pronab Sen, Chairperson, National Statistical Commission, said the growing size of sample surveys has resulted in the “blurring” of the line between sample surveys and a census. The scaling up of the number of enumerators used for such large sample surveys has resulted in “huge non-sampling errors.”

T. M. Thomas Isaac, former Kerala Minister of Finance, observed that the “ownership” of local level data by people is an important cornerstone of local self-governance. He pointed out that in many parts of the country the emergence of a new political class consisting of elected representatives of local bodies has put pressure on existing political structures of governance.