A poverty of statistics

A poverty of statistics

Last Updated: Wed, Jun 29, 2011 20:31 hrs

The Planning Commission, the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) and the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) are being overseen by some of the brightest minds in the Indian government for many years now. Both together and individually they have made a travesty of the data being brought out, debated and used for policy making. Thus, whether it is poverty or employment, the figures are so far away from reality that it is unclear whether they should be used even in an indicative manner.

As is well known, poverty figures computed by the Planning Commission are based on a survey that captures less than half of the total household consumption expenditure. Yet the same organisations complain that the poverty figures are way too low! If actual consumption was more than double that reported by the NSSO, would poverty levels not be much lower? This is now being followed by another farcical exercise in which the government is going to identify who is poor and who is not by looking at a combination of reported caste occupation and assets owned. What happened to the great system designed by the late P C Mahalanobis, which was arguably among the best in the world?

Employment figures are another farce being played out by organisations that have been made defunct. The great hungama over how India has had jobless growth continues, with few paying attention to the quality of data or the role of policy. According to a new theory that has been floated, Indian unemployment figures are not comparable internationally because most Indians are self-employed! These arguments can only be offered by the Planning Commission and the economists/statisticians it employs and consults. On a similar note, organised-sector employment estimates from the NSSO data are found to be 30 million or thereabouts for more than two decades. Meanwhile, the number of Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) account holders is in the vicinity of 45 million. Why can the NSSO not make a more realistic estimate? The answer lies not in its sampling or quality of data collection; it simply does not ask the obvious questions. And no one bothers to change the questionnaire, which is more or less the same as in the seventies. It is well known to everyone except those in the ministry of statistics and programme implementation as well as the Planning Commission that the organised sector in India has circumvented many rigid labour laws by hiring temporary and/or contract workers. In some cases, employment from the organised sector has been outsourced to entities in the unorganised sector. In many of these “newer” models of employment, provident fund is still paid and, consequently, organisations such as the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation can capture it, but the Planning Commission and the CSO cannot.

Employment is by far the most important measure of economic activity. It is also an objective in itself and perhaps one of the best measures of inclusive growth. But its character is far more complex today than in the past — there are the regular employees, temporary employees, on-demand staff, contract employees, paid internships, both paid and unpaid work in family businesses, apprentices, and so on. In addition, many people are simultaneously undertaking more than one type of income- earning activity. The tools used to measure employment in the sixties and the seventies will not work half a century later. India needs more up-to-date and robust employment data so that meaningful conclusions can be drawn about the nature of the growth process and its impact on jobs.

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