What comes after you kill the NSO?

Scrapping an unfavourable survey on falling consumer expenditure is the latest assault on India’s statistical machinery. If it continues on this path, where will the government go to find credible data for policymaking?

P.C. Mohanan wasn’t surprised at all with the news on 15 November. A career statistician for over 30 years and a former acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission, Mohanan had learnt to read between the lines. And interpret silences. Especially that of governments about economic data during a downturn. Particularly when a council of ministers goes overboard insisting that all is well with the economy. Mohanan has been through it all.

The last time such a situation arose and the government kept delaying the release of a periodic jobs survey by the National Sample Survey Office, or NSSO, he resigned in protest, in January this year. So, he suspected all along that something wasn’t right with the 2017-18 consumer expenditure survey, which the government hadn’t released yet. Then the findings of the survey made their way to a news report.

India woke up that Friday morning to yet another set of dismal consumer spending numbers in its long list of economic woes, pointing at a deepening slowdown. The Business Standard report said that consumer expenditure in India declined in 2017-18 for the first time since 1972-73, pulled down by a slackening demand in rural areas, citing the unreleased survey.

The survey, which is carried out every five years—Key Indicators: Household Consumer Expenditure in India—was approved by a committee on 19 June but was withheld due to “adverse findings”, said the report. Data for the survey was collected between July 2017 and June 2018, in the wake of demonetization and the implementation of the goods and services tax.

That evening, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, or MoSPI, issued a statement saying it has decided “not to release the Consumer Expenditure Survey results of 2017-2018” because of “data quality issues”. This is the first time the government has junked such a survey since NSSO was created in 1950.

The government’s move is the latest in a series of blows to the credibility of the National Statistical Office, or NSO, a body created earlier this year from the merger of the mostly independent NSSO and the Central Statistics Office, a body under the central government. It also raises two critical questions:

1. Where does NSO go from here? What is the future of the institution?

2. Where does the government go for credible data now that it has cast a shadow over data generated by a government agency?

Illustrations by Swati Addanki.

Lead image by athree23 from Pixabay.

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