When evidence-based policymaking becomes the cornerstone of good governance, it is difficult to overstate the importance of reliable and timely public data. Such data have a direct bearing on the state’s capability to design and implement programmes effectively. Among the emerging economies, India is credited to have a relatively robust public data system generated through its decennial Census and yearly sample surveys on specific themes . The coverage and reporting of Census data have vastly improved since independence. Though errors continue to be higher than in high-income countries, Census data are recognised for their reliability. Nevertheless, certain disquieting trends are visible on this front.
One, despite having adopted latest data processing technologies, there has been a growing delay, sometimes by years, in the release of the collected data. This renders such data less useful for policy intervention. The delay also implies less public scrutiny and hence undermines accountability. In an extreme case, the government refrained from releasing the data collected through the Socio-Economic and Caste Census .
The second is the issue of comparability. In recent years, the government introduced changes to the estimation of GDP that made comparisons over time impossible. Adjustments to computation and survey methods are always welcome when they are meant to improve accuracy. In this instance, the arguments for revision and the revisions undertaken do not improve the quality of estimates. Therefore, the revisions, some claim, are driven more by political considerations than by the need to improve accuracy.
Third, there has been a slippage in the conduct of sample surveys. The statistical bureau has been revising the sample surveys almost every year. One crucial sample survey is the quinquennial ‘Monthly Household Consumer Expenditure’ (MHCE). The MHCE provides the data base to compute the weightage assigned for commodities in the calculation of Inflation Index, the poverty line and poverty ratio, nutritional standards of people based on their consumption of various food items, and consumption expenditure in the national accounts system. The government also uses the poverty estimates to decide on the State-wise allocation of foodgrains to be sold at subsidised prices through the Public Distribution System. Hence, the MHCE is an important policy instrument despite the fact that the data provided through the MHCE surveys have been widely debated. Such debates have, however, led to refinement of the methods of data collection and made the data more robust.
The Government of India (GoI) in November 2019 announced that the MHCE data collected in 2017-18 could not be released due to ‘data quality issues’. Though it did not elaborate on what the issues were, it went on to announce that the sample surveys for consumption expenditure will be conducted in 2020-21 and 2021-22. At present, we do not have information on whether the GoI has conducted these sample surveys. The GoI has further postponed the decennial census in 2021 to 2022 on the grounds that COVID-19 has had a serious impact on migration and livelihood options of the people. It is therefore important that the Census be conducted at the earliest and the results be made available to draw samples for the sample surveys in subsequent years.
If digital data collection tools are to be used as announced earlier, several challenges need to be addressed. As mentioned earlier, we have lost a precious data base and more than five years have lapsed since then. This affects the framing of policies relating to food and nutrition security, among others. Given the significance of education and health in sustaining development, and the adverse impacts that the pandemic is likely to have had on these dimensions, such lapses are disconcerting. Moreover, the robust estimation of individual items in the national accounts system also awaits the Census and the subsequent sample survey results. Unless these surveys are completed and the results announced, we will be left with a doctor prescribing medicines without diagnosis.
Comment | What counts is seldom counted
In the absence of timely and reliable public data, users are increasingly relying on data provided through large-scale surveys conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). However, users have raised questions about the design and data collection framework of the CMIE’s high-frequency household survey. As they take recourse to other metrics for analysis, the onus is on the government to ensure that the data generation possibilities opened up by new technologies are embedded in a robust system of public data production and use.
R. Srinivasan is Member, State Planning Commission, Government of Tamil Nādu; M. Vijayabaskar is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies and is also Member, State Planning Commission