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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 45 November 4, 2023

Data Aversion? | Atul Sarma

Saturday 4 November 2023


Way back in 1981, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN gave Late Dr Y.K Alagh and me a consultancy assignment. We were required to develop an accounting framework for public resource flows into agriculture in developing countries. Since different countries adopted different budgetary systems, we were to visit some eight representative countries from different parts of the world to collect relevant budgetary data. It fell on me to visit the selected countries and examine their budgets to cull out the resource allocation for agriculture. Whichever countries I visited, ranging from Africa to South America, I came across a great appreciation of the Indian statistical system and innovative methods such as national sample survey and crop cutting method of estimation of agricultural output.

Having witnessed such high acclaim of Indian statistics, one feels sad to find that The World Bank on the basis of assessment of Statistical Performance Indicators (SPI) has ranked India 67 among 174 counties in 2019. The SPI is based on the assessment of five dimensions: data use; data sources; data products; data services and data infrastructure. No wonder, the credibility of Indian statistics including GDP data is being questioned in recent years. Paradoxically, India celebrates its election to the United Nations Statistical Commission.

As a matter of fact, household consumer expenditure survey results for 2017-18 were junked by the Statistics and Programme Implementation Ministry presumably due to “data quality issue”. As a result, India does not have any official estimates since 2011-12 on per capita household spending to arrive at estimates of poverty levels in different parts of the country or to review the GDP.

Still worse, the decennial Census of India which had been conducted uninterrupted over a century and a half since its introduction in 1872 and conduct of the first complete census in 1881. Even two world wars in the twentieth century could not disrupt the decennial census in India.

The latest 16th census was due in 2021. In fact, Budget 2020-21 allocated ₹37.68 billion for the census in the year 2021. It was delayed to 2022 and further to 2023 due to the Covid-19. True, India is not alone to delay census. Even the nighbouring countries also did. But they carried out a little later. For example, Nepal conducted census after postponing it from June 2021 to November and Bangladesh after pushing it to June 2022. In Asia alone, twelve countries carried out census during the pandemic period. One can argue that India is much larger in population size. Even amongst the ten most populous countries in the world, eight had completed their censuses. Countries like US (2020), UK (2021), Russia (2021), Brazil (2022) and China (2020) that also suffered heavy onslaught of the pandemic carried out their census exercises.

Now that the deadline of freezing administrative boundaries has been postponed to June30, 2023 and the general elections in 2024, the census could be held only in late 2024 and the census data could be available in public domain at least after two years later i.e. 2026 or more than one and a half decades since the last census in 2011.

The census which is conducted once every ten years is critically important. A circular issued in February 2020 by the then Register General of India and the Census Commissioner states:

“The Census is the only source of providing the basic benchmark data on housing condition, facilities available to the households and the state of human resources at various administrative levels up to the villages in rural areas and towns/wards in urban areas. It is widely used for planning and formulation of policies and effective public administration by the Central/State/UT governments. Apart from this, census data are used for delimitation and reservation of constituencies for parliamentary, assembly, panchayats and other local bodies.”

The delay in carrying out the census has affected multiple other data sets that rely on Census to base their samples. For example, the National Family Household survey (NFHS) base its samples on Census. To the extent they base their samples on the dated Census data, the robustness of such statistics gets eroded.

Similarly, the policies that are to be implemented using the Census data as in the case of the National Food Security Act would lead to a huge exclusion from accessing free or subsidized grain. More specifically, the Act has stipulated that allocations “shall be made on the basis of the population estimates as per Census of which the relevant figures have been published.” Since 75 % of rural population and 50% of urban population as stipulated as beneficiaries are based on 2011 population Census figures, a massive number of deserving population would be deprived of their legitimate entitlement under the NFSA.

Again, Census data are required for formulation and implementation of various economic and social development policies/schemes at the village, block, and district levels. These policies/schemes if implemented based on 2011 Census data or projected data would be unrealistic to a significant extent.

Demographers hold that demographic exercises using district level population growth for the inter-censal period, say 2001 and 2011, give fairly reasonable estimates within the range of ten years. Beyond that period, several demographic dynamics such as fertility, mortality and migration which are greatly impacted by spread of education, health care, income rise and its differential growth lead to errors in any demographic projections particularly at the lower level of administrative units. To that extent, policy making and its implantation lose ground level reality.

The consequence of delayed Census would be grossly felt on the implementation of recently introduced Women’s Reservation. For, it will come into effect “after an exercise of delimitation is undertaken for this purpose after the relevant figures for the first Census taken after commencement of the Constitution (one hundred and twenty eighth) Amendment Act have been published “ (new Article 334 A). That means the Women reservation could be operationalized only after six years or so since the passage of the bill.

All such consequences are not unknown. Why it is then the policy makers are displaying utter neglect of data generation and delaying decadal Census indefinitely or indifference to data quality deterioration? Is it just their data aversion or their preference of heuristic over evidence-based policy making? Hopefully, the revamped Standing Committee on Statistics to review the framework and results of all surveys conducted under the aegis of the National Statistical Office would initiate steps to restore the past glory of the Indian statistical system.

(Author: Atul Sarma, Member, Thirteenth Finance Commission)

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