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Insights into Editorial: A short history of data

Insights into Editorial: A short history of data

Recent Controversies about Indian National Statistics:

Over the past two months, Indian national statistics and the organisations that administer them have faced a volley of criticism.

In recent, two independent members of the National Statistical Commission resigned in protest, over alleged suppression of economic data by the government.

More recently, amidst growing scepticism regarding India’s official statistics, more than a hundred scholars comprising economists and social scientists released a statement decrying the fall in standards of institutional independence, suggesting political interference as the cause.

Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank, also recently regret strongly the declining credibility of India’s official statistics.

There has been a controversy over NSSO figures not being released after a draft report had indicated that employment generation was slow.


Pioneering history the growth of India’s vast National Statistical Infrastructure:

The birth of a new nation led to an explosion of national statistics, based on the need to plan the economy through Five Year Plans.

These years would see the establishment of

  • The office of the Statistical Adviser to the Government,
  • Bi-annual National Sample Surveys (NSS),
  • The Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), and
  • National Income Committees (that made the estimates similar to GDP measurements).

While declining data quality has been an issue for a while, concern over institutional independence is new.

 ‘The Professor’, as Mahalanobis was known to associates, was involved in the discussions that led to establishment of the UN Statistical Commission in New York (a body that he would be voted Chairperson of several times during the 1950s).

As a pioneer in the emerging field of large-scale sample surveys, he would also be the force behind creating the UN Sub-Commission on Statistical Sampling in 1947.


Evolution of National Statistics Commission:

National Statistics Commission came in to existence through a Resolution dated 1st June, 2005 setup National Statistical Commission w.e.f 12th July, 2006. It is based on the recommendations of Rangarajan Commission, which reviewed the Indian Statistical System in 2001.

It is supposed to act as a nodal and empowered body for all core statistical activities of the country. It will also ensure statistical coordination among the different agencies involved.

The mandate is to evolve policies, priorities and standards in statistical matters.

It is to have chairperson and four members. CEO, NITI Aayog is the Ex-officio Member and Chief Statistician of India and Secretary, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation is the Secretary to the National Statistical Commission.


Issues that need to be resolved of Immediate Attention:

  • It is well known for methods that keep a tight control on errors. That the statement of NSS being “fake news” comes from an authority-figure like a Union minister, only adds to the merriment and is laughable.


  • India, with its vastness and complexities, poses tremendous challenges for data collection.


  • The dualistic nature of the economy means a large unorganised sector coexists with the organised sector that the data collection systems are unable to fully cover.


  • Despite rigorous methodologies, the NSSO data have not been free from critical appraisals.


  • Apart from periodicity and timeliness, the NSSO has been criticised on several grounds such as the estimated size of the population.


  • The NSSO survey architecture and the sampling designs are complex and technical and are not easily accessible to the general public.


  • This diminished status of statistics today contrasts with the emphasis that was sought to be laid on building sound statistical systems.


  • In the 1950 session of Indian Science Congress, Mahalanobis gave the famous speech, ‘Why Statistics?’ and in 1964, he delivered an address on ‘Statistics as a Key Technology’ at the 125th Anniversary of the American Statistical Association.


  • But, more significantly, he gave newly independent India a sophisticated statistical system with few parallels in the world at the time.


The National Sample Survey needs to be kept above the realm of politics:

The Indian National Sample Survey is respected the world over. Not just because of its size, but also for its sample design, that uses methods make perfect by some of the world’s most reputed statisticians.

This distinguished history, which India can claim with pride, makes the recent undermining of the credibility of our statistical output especially regrettable.

We can, however, ensure that when we look back on this several years from now, it represents an anomaly rather than a lasting, irreparable loss of institutional credibility.



Policy formulation will become difficult and faulty in the absence of data or when the data is wrong or insufficient. Investment decisions can be made only on the basis of credible data.

The integrity and reliability of the country’s statistical system and institutions have come to be questioned within the country and outside because of complaints that the government’s attempts to politicise and manipulate official data.

This will do long-term damage to the economy and the credibility of the entire system.

As many as 108 economists and social scientists alleged “political interference” in statistical data in the country and called for restoration of “institutional independence” as well as integrity of statistical organisations.

The official given statement that government is committed to maintaining the credibility of our statistical organisations, not only that we have worked hard to strengthen these organisations and will continue to do so.


Way Forward:

The moving spirit behind the developments was Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, whom Jawaharlal Nehru described as the “presiding genius of statistics in India,” and the institute that he had founded in Calcutta in 1931, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).

There is an immediate need to dismiss the concerns about alleged political interference in statistical data.

The government is committed to maintaining the credibility of statistical organisations and the NSSO employment data would be released by month-end.

The economists have pointed out that economic statistics are a public good and are essential for policy-making and informed public discourse.

They also underlined the need for the use of scientific methods for data collection and estimation and their timely dissemination, which form vital public services.