Insights into Editorial: Why the integrity of data matters
Recently, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme implementation (MoSPI) passed an order to merge the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) into the National Statistical Office (NSO).
The announcement that the government has decided to merge the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) into and under the Central Statistics Office (CSO) has caused both surprise and concern. What exactly the ‘merger’ means remains unclear.
Recent attempts to question the veracity of National Sample Survey (NSS) data and the way the issue has been handled have given rise to apprehensions within academia, State governments and the media about the prospect of radical changes in the present system for deciding substantive issues of scope, design, scrutiny and validation of the surveys.
Brief Background about NSSO and CSO:
In 2000, a committee headed by former RBI governor C. Rangarajan suggested the establishment of two bodies– National Statistical Office (NSO) by merging CSO and NSSO and National Statistical Commission (NSC).
It had recommended that NSO should function ‘as the executive wing of the Government in the field of statistics and act according to the policies and priorities, laid down by the National Statistical Commission.
Subsequently, the National Statistical Commission was set up as a non-statutory body and it was entrusted with the responsibility of acting as a Nodal and empowered body for all core statistical activities of the country. It was also given the supervisory powers over the NSSO.
However, the proposal of setting up National Statistical Office (NSO) was not taken into consideration then.
Now, Merger of CSO and NSSO into NSO: What does the order indicate?
- The order makes no mention of NSC, reinforcing the long-held belief that the government was undermining it.
- The merger of CSO and NSSO, an entity separate from MoSPI will take away the NSSO’s autonomy. The order seems to suggest NSC’s independent oversight mechanism will no longer exist and makes no mention of that.
- With the merger of both bodies, one gets the impression that access to data from the NSSO is primarily for official use by the MoSPI and perhaps the NITI Aayog.
- After all, this merger will enable government agencies including the NITI Aayog to get a quick hand on the information system – for use or abuse.
- The 2005 resolution notified initiation of the setting up of the NSC along with proposing the single entity, National Statistical Organisation, as the executive wing of the government for statistics which would act according to the policies and priorities as laid down by the NSC.
- The 2005 resolution proposed NSO with two wings, CSO and NSSO while 2019 order states that the statistics wing, comprising the NSO, with constituents as CSO and NSSO, to be an integral part of the main Ministry, with CSO and NSSO to be merged into NSO.
Concerns related to merger of CSO and NSSO:
- It is to be noted that both NSSO and NSC were in news recently due to the controversy related to Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) Report.
- This report had stated that the unemployment rate in India has increased to 6.1% which is considered to be the highest in the last 45 years. The Government had stalled the release of this report, even though its release was authorised by NSC.
- Subsequently, it led to the resignation of two members of NSC. The critics have argued that the Government is undermining the NSC by keeping the NSO outside its purview.
- This raises serious questions about the independence of the process through which official survey data is collected and published.
- The order says NSSO and CSO are to be merged into NSO. The secretary of the MoSPI would head NSO and he/she would be assisted by three director generals.
- However, the order does not explicitly states that the NSO would work under the purview of National Statistical Commission.
- In this regard, critics have argued that the NSC would not able to exercise independent oversight mechanism over the functioning of NSO.
- It is widely recognised that there is scope for improvement in the functioning of the institution and the way data are collected.
- These problems are well known: the NSSO doesn’t have adequate budgetary allocations; there is an acute shortage of trained field staff.
- The scale of surveys is un-manageably large mainly because the users demand a degree of detail in content and regional disaggregation of estimates. The NSC is fully conscious of these difficulties.
- Centralisation of data in the ministry can become a hurdle for quick and timely release of the data for public research and debate. A recent example of such trouble was the recent non-availability of data on unemployment.
Way Forward to make NSO Effective and Efficient:
The solutions call for action by the institutions responsible for gathering data by investing in continuing research on improving sampling design, field survey methods and validation of data. Correcting these deficiencies is entirely in the domain of government.
The NSO needs to work independently and remain outside political influence. This can be done by bringing the NSO under the NSC and re-establishing the NSC in the form of statutory body through an act passed by the Parliament.
Further, the NSO needs to have sufficient budgetary allocation and adequate number of trained field staff in order to improve the quality of the surveys.
The NSSO surveys command wide respect among academics, State governments and non-governmental organisations as the most reliable and comparable basis for discussions in the public policy arena.
This is based on their well-earned reputation for professionalism, independence and integrity.
There is a need to ensure the credibility of the Indian statistical system by ensuring that the surveys of the NSO do not need the prior approval of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.