Even as questions have been raised about the delays in data dissemination from various government agencies — the most recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau dates back to 2016 and accident statistics have not been updated since 2015 — a recent report published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), shows that inconsistencies have crept into into the dissemination of fiscal datasets as well.
According to the IMF’s “Annual Observance Report of the Special Data Dissemination Standard for 2018” , India failed to comply with multiple requirements prescribed in the Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS) — a practice mandatory for all IMF members — whereas comparable economies comprising the BRICS grouping of Brazil, China, South Africa and Russia, have maintained a near impeccable record in the same period. Also, India’s non-compliance in multiple categories in 2018 and to an extent in 2017 breaks with an otherwise near perfect dissemination record.
When contacted, the IMF acknowledged India’s deviations but termed them “non-serious”. However, independent observers see these deficiencies as a result of indifference to data dissemination procedures.
Importance of SDDS
The IMF launched the SDDS initiative in 1996 to guide members to enhance data transparency and help financial market participants with adequate information to assess the economic situations of individual countries. India subscribed to the SDDS on December 27, 1996.
The yearly observance report for each member country lists the compliances and deviations from the SDDS under each data category for that year. There are over 20 data categories which IMF considers for this report to capture a nation’s economic health including national accounts (GDP, GNI), production indices, employment, and central government operations.
The report lists three types of deviations from SDDS. The first deals with delays in data dissemination from the periodicity prescribed in the SDDS. The second occurs when member countries do not list a data category in their Advance Release Calendars (ARC) despite the category being mandated by the SDDS. The third deviation occurs when data is not disseminated at all for a particular period.
India, in 2018, has deviated from the SDDS in at least one instance in all the data categories listed. (Page 6: https://dsbb.imf.org/content/pdfs/AnnualReports/2018/IND_SDDS_AR2018.pdf ).
A negative entry corresponds to “number of days dissemination was later than timeliness requirement”. In 2018, in eight data categories, India delayed dissemination by varying degrees. For instance, in quarter 1, the “national accounts” data dissemination occurred almost two months (118 days) later than prescribed.
In comparison, Brazil did not delay dissemination in any category. China , South Africa and Russia lagged in some categories but the delay did not exceed a month (31 days) for any category. In India's case, the delay has exceeded 100 days in multiple instances.
An “X” entry reflects “data not being disseminated”. In 2018, in at least nine data categories, India has not disseminated data. None of the other BRICS countries’ reports records missing data for the period.
An “O” entry corresponds to “no mention in ARC”. In at least three data categories, India has not mentioned a prescribed entry in its advanced data release calendar — again the odd one out among the BRICS nations.
A recent phenomenon
India’s non-compliance with IMF standards is a recent phenomenon. The “X”s for non-dissemination of data and “O”s for data categories missing from the ARC were few and far between in India’s reports in the 2006-2016 period. The graphic lists such instances since 2006.
When asked for the reason for the delays in 2018, Deputy Director in the Department of Economic Affairs Aakanksha Arora termed it as a “one off event due to technical glitches”.
“In 2018, various changes were carried out for the improvement of website of Ministry of Finance which hosts the National Summary Data Page (NSDP) web page. In this process, due to some technical glitches related to the Ministry’s website, data in the NSDP was not recorded in the SDDS of IMF in 2018 despite updating the data on regular frequency,” Ms. Arora said.
The IMF’s “Guide for Subscribers and Users: The Special Data Dissemination Standard; 2013” , a reference manual for the SDDS subscribers mentions that “monthly reports are sent to individual subscribing countries about their observance”. Thus India would have received such intimations about its deviations at the end of every month in 2018 from the IMF as at least one deviation from SDDS were observed in all the months.
The IMF document also states that “monitoring observance of the SDDS is central to maintaining the credibility of the IMF’s data standards initiatives and its usefulness to policymakers.” It further states that if the IMF staff considers a non-observance as a “serious deviation” then procedures would be initiated against the member country.
When asked to explain the significance of India’s recent non-observance, the IMF’s statistics department acknowledged that “there have been some deviations from SDDS requirements mainly on timeliness…. some data points were posted on the NSDP with delay.” However, the IMF staff did not consider these as “serious deviations”.
IMF came to this conclusion as,“although some data points were posted on NSDP with delays. They were made available on other (Indian) government websites on a timely basis through links on the NSDP to these websites”.
When asked about the “X's and “O”s mentioned in the report, IMF said, “similar to deviations in timeliness, these too were duly noted in the Annual Observance Reports to indicate the need for improvements”.
However this is in contradiction to the IMF’s SDDS guide document, which states that “Coordination among statistical agencies in providing data to the host agency for the NSDP is critical to meeting this SDDS requirement”. The document further states that “The NSDP is to disseminate, at a minimum, the latest observation and the observation immediately preceding it for all prescribed data categories and related components.” The document mentions the option to link to government websites for detailed data only as an “obligation”.
When the IMF was asked to explain why India’s non-observance was deemed as non-serious , their statistical department persisted that this was due to “information availability in other government websites”. It added that “the forthcoming harmonisation of the NSDPs for all SDDS countries with those for SDDS Plus and e-GDDS countries (other similar standards)” will solve this issue.
‘Lack of attention’
However, independent data experts have raised concerns about the delays. Former acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission, P.C. Mohanan said India’s deviations are a “result of inadequate care paid to (data) dissemination related issues which leads to a lack of openness and transparency.”
He also said metadata and reference links given in the NSDP “have not been updated for quite some time.” Mr. Mohanan also rued the fact these issues are not new. “They (IMF) had then (in 2004) suggested to have a single comprehensive NSDP containing all data categories. We still have different agencies providing the data and the links all lead to different home pages of their websites. The references are circular that you end up where you started.”
He said data collection efforts are more towards large schemes like Economic Census and not towards improving the data quality.
Mr. Mohanan cited another part of the same IMF report to prove this point. “Information provided under the Data Quality Assurance Framework (DQAF) under various heads are also very patchy and poorly edited. For example the link to the employment data refers to the 68th round of NSS (2011-12) with all the survey instructions. Even the contact person’s details are not updated.”
Pointing out that the statistical system has behaved more like an adjunct to the government, Mr. Mohanan said the legal framework had to be updated for the statistical system to regain its high standards and credibility.
“The strength of the professional cadre also needs to be augmented and the internal architecture of both CSO and NSSO thoroughly reviewed to bring in professional competency and specialisation. In the present context this does not appear to be a priority for the Government,” he added.