The ongoing monsoon session of Parliament has been in the news more for the government hiding behind its stock reply — lack of data – than for legislating.
Many questions have remained just that. These involved the number of internal migrants, their deaths due to the extended lockdown, farmers dying by suicide, jobs lost due to the pandemic and the number of micro, small and medium enterprises which shut down since March. The government’s standard response has been: It has no data.
In this backdrop, the observations of a parliamentary standing committee on the role and scope of work of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) – the principal government body tasked with collecting, assessing and presenting national level data – are significant.
In its 23rd report tabled last week, the panel, headed by former MoS Finance Jayant Sinha, has made sharp observations on the absence of data, inadequate sampling and the inability of this ministry to collect the health-related data on the pandemic. Among the members of this panel are former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former cabinet ministers Praful Patel, Manish Tewari and Ambika Soni.
The panel has asked the government to include data from the informal sector while calculating the GDP. It has said that economic activities and services, including those in the unorganized/informal sector, should be comprehensively reflected in the GDP framework so that the ground realities emerge clearly and data gaps on various socio-economic indices are bridged.
“Authentic and credible data is crucial for planning, policy structuring, informed decision-making and inclusive growth. It is imperative that all methodological ambiguities are sorted out once and for all.”
Why are these observations particularly timely? The GDP print for the first quarter of this fiscal came in at -23.9%, the sharpest contraction ever. But economists said that actual contraction was likely far worse since the current methodology of collecting data for calculating GDP figures uses proxies for the informal sector and the actual shrinkage may become known only in the coming months. So in effect, the GDP contraction figures may worsen when the first advance estimates are released and the figures we know now could be misleading.
Consumer Price Index
The panel has said the present methodology for calculating the Consumer Price Index (CPI) too, does not capture the rising cost of services such as education, healthcare and transport, which leave an adverse impact on the standard of living. The members have sought an exclusive Service Price Index for essential services.
In its reply, the government has listed out values of the ‘Experimental Business Service Price Index’. This prompted the panel to then note that these data do not include any information on services such as education and healthcare.
The panel has stated the obvious as far as collection of crucial health data is concerned: in times of a global pandemic, the MoSPI should be conducting health surveys and become the nodal agency for health data. Such statistical inputs would help both, the Central and state governments, in formulating appropriate policy responses. As of now, the NSSO (National Statistical Survey Organisation) takes up health-related subjects as requested by the Health Ministry, with the last such survey being ‘Social consumption: Health’ from July 2017 to June 2018.
The crucial question of jobs
The panel noted that the lack of regular data on employment and unemployment poses a serious challenge to economic policy-making as also the economic revival. “The official unemployment figures which are obviously out-of-date seem very unrealistic. Although the government has been earnestly seeking to promote self-employment and skill development through the National Skill Development Programme, some industries such as garments, gems and jewellery and handicrafts need more attention for more job creation.
“As revival and creation of employment is a stated objective of the government, it is imperative that accurate, current and reliable data on employment is readily available to assess the employment trends and to formulate appropriate policy responses.”
In its reply, the government merely cited the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLF) data and one on the formal sector. But in June this year, right after the world’s harshest lockdown was eased somewhat in India, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had said that the number of workers vulnerable to the lockdown could reach 364 million or more, including those in casual work, self-employment and unprotected regular jobs (lacking social protection coverage).
A massive 85% of all workers in India were in the informal sector, according to the ILO. Another 5% were employed in the formal sector but under “informal” conditions. The ILO had said that economic recovery will require a strategy that restores jobs and supports incomes of both enterprises and workers — re-establishing supply lines and building back demand, while protecting health, rights and incomes of workers and their families, especially for migrant workers and those in the informal economy.