Economic Data

Trend of Hiding the National Data

Over the past two weeks, headlines have focussed on declining employment between 2011-12 and 2016-17; loss of jobs under the National Democratic Alliance government, particularly post-demonetisation; and the government’s refusal to release a report using the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) documenting this decline, leading to resignations of two members of the National Statistical Commission. In a pre-election, politically charged environment, it makes for eye-catching headlines.

Past experience

  • Census 2011 data on religious distribution of the population was not released until 2015. It is widely believed that these data were ready before the 2014 election, but the United Progressive Alliance government was worried about inciting passions around differential population growth between Hindus and Muslims and chose not to release the tables. Suppression of results seems to be a problem common to all political parties.
  • Similarly, the UNICEF conducted the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) 2013-14 on behalf of the Ministry of Women and Child Development but the report was held up by the new government, allegedly due to the fear that it showed Gujarat in poor light.
  • Similar is the case with the National Sample Survey, or the NSS’s Employment-Unemployment surveys (not conducted since 2011-12), forcing public policy to rely on non-comparable statistics from other sources such as the data from the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO).

Issues

  • The fear of having statistical reports misquoted is legitimate. We live in a world where appetite for news is incessant and the news cycle is very short. Statistics that don’t always lend themselves to rapid unpacking into sound bites and headlines are easily misinterpreted.
  • India’s growth rate remains robust, but the benefits of the country’s growth have been concentrated almost entirely at the top, with grim implications for the working classes and the lower-middle classes, women and the young.
  • In a world dominated by WikiLeaks, suppressing reports seem to create an even bigger problem, since it allows individuals with exclusive access to act as the interpreters for others.
  • It creates a vicious cycle where fear of misinterpretation of data leads to suppression of the data and the cycle continues…
  • Simply placing basic reports in the public domain is not sufficient, particularly in a news cycle where many journalists are in a hurry to file their stories and cherry-pick results to create headlines.
  • According to the “State of Working India 2018,” a large study conducted by the Center for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University, India’s youth unemployment now stands at 16 percent. Women hold just 16 percent of jobs in the service sector. In 2011, only 13 percent of senior officers, legislators and managers were women; by 2015, the figure had dropped to 7 percent.

Conclusion

Understaffed and underfunded statistical services cannot possibly have sufficient domain expertise to undertake substantively informed analyses in all the areas for which statistical data are required. A better way of building a robust data infrastructure may be to ensure that each major data collection activity is augmented by an analytical component led by domain experts, recruited from diverse sources, including academia.