There needs to be robust infrastructure for official statistics so that governments do not suppress inconvenient truths
Over the past two weeks, headlines have focussed on declining employment between 2011-12 and 2016-17; loss of jobs under the National Democratic Alliance government, particularly post-demonetization; and the government’s refusal to release a report using the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) documenting this decline, leading to resignations of two members of the National Statistical Commission. In a preelection, politically charged environment, it makes for eye-catching headlines.
Let us step back from this episode and recall similar controversies over official data in the past. Past experiences tell us five things.
First, suppression of results seems to be a problem common to all political parties.
Census 2011 data on religious distribution of the population was not released until 2015. It is widely believed that these data were ready before the 2014 election, but the United Progressive Alliance government was worried about inciting passions around differential population growth between Hindus and Muslims and chose not to release the tables.
Similarly, the UNICEF conducted the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) 2013-14 on behalf of the Ministry of Women and Child Development but the report was held up by the new government, allegedly due to the fear that it showed Gujarat in poor light. Sometimes these concerns lead to lack of investment in data collection itself, as is the case with the National Sample Survey, or the NSS’s Employment-Unemployment surveys (not conducted since 2011-12), forcing public policy to rely on non-comparable statistics from other sources such as the data from the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). These episodes are likely to recur, and hence, we need a more comprehensive strategy for dealing with them.
Second, the fear of having statistical reports misquoted is legitimate
We live in a world where appetite for news is incessant and the news cycle is very short. Statistics that don’t always lend themselves to rapid unpacking into sound bites and headlines are easily misinterpreted.
When Census 2001 results on religion were released, in September 2004, a newspaper led with a story that although the Hindu growth rate between 1981-1991 and 1991-2001 had declined from 25.1% to 20.3%, that for Muslims had gone up from 34.5% to 36%.
Media reports paid little attention to the actual report that highlighted that the 1991 Census was not conducted in Jammu and Kashmir and that after adjusting for it, growth rates for both Hindus and Muslims had declined. When the mistake was discovered, it was blamed on the then Registrar General and Census Commissioner, J.K. Banthia, a highly competent demographer. He was sent into bureaucratic exile while the news media moved on to a new story.
Third, it is impossible to bottle up the genie once data are collected and reports prepared.
In a world dominated by WikiLeaks, suppressing reports seem to create an even bigger problem, since it allows individuals with exclusive access to act as the interpreters for others.
In the instance of the RSOC mentioned above, suppression of the report, coupled with leaked data encouraged speculation by The Economist (July 2015) that the data were being suppressed because Gujarat must have fared poorly on reducing malnutrition. â–ª It stated that Bihar had made much greater progress since the proportion of children who go hungry had been cut from 56% to 37% between 2005-6 and 2012-13, while the decline was much smaller in Gujarat, from 44.6% to 33.5%.
Fourth, sometimes leaked results create speculation that is far worse than full disclosure would warrant.
The Economist cherry-p-icked its comparisons. Nutritional status is measured by weight-for-age (underweight) and height-for-age (stunting).
The final report showed that about 41.6% of children in Gujarat were stunted (had low height for their age), This is higher than the nationwide average of 38.7%. However, improvement in stunting in Gujarat between 2005-6 and 2013-14 was of similar and slightly higher magnitude as that for the nation as a whole: 10.1 versus 9.7 percentage points.
Moreover, stunting decline in Gujarat was greater than that in Bihar, 10.1 percentage points as opposed to 6 percentage points. Usually statistics on underweight and stunting should provide a similar picture; when they do not, greater care is required in interpretation. This was not possible because only The Economist seemed to have access to the report and led the headlines.
The employment picture
Fifth, statistics often deal with complicated reality and require thoughtful analysis instead of the bare bones reporting contained in typical government reports. The headline in Business Standard on February 3 based on the leaked PLFS report claims that more than half the population is out of labour force; however, the statistics they present show that the trend is dominated by women and the rural population. If the full report were available, I think it would be rural women who would drive the employment story. This is very much a continuation of the trend between 2004-5 and 2011-12 documented by the NSS, under a different government.
Between 2004-5 and 2011-12, work participation rates for rural women of working ages (25-64) fell from 57% to 43%. However, much of this decline was in women working on family farms and in family businesses, from 42% to 27%; decline in wage work was much smaller, from 24% to 21%.
If lower engagement of women with family-based activities such as farming, rearing livestock or engaging in petty businesses drives the decline in employment, we may need to look at declining farm sizes and increasing mechanization as the drivers of this decline.
One can blame the government for not creating more salaried jobs for women pushed out of farming and related activities, but it would be hard to blame it for eliminating jobs.
If the full report and unit level data for the PLFS were available, it is possible that we will find a continuation of the trend that started in 2004-5.
This is not to say that demonetization may not have had a negative impact, particularly in urban India, where Business Standard reports that employment fell from 49.3% to 47.6%, but this is a much smaller decline. It is also important to note that the urban comparison between the NSS and the PLFS requires caution, particularly for unemployment figures. Whereas the NSS contains independent cross-sectional samples for each sub-round, the PLFS includes a panel component in urban areas where the same households are reinterviewed every quarter. Since it would be easier to find unemployed individuals than employed individuals for interview, attrition adjustment is necessary before drawing any conclusions. Without access to the full report, it is difficult to tell whether attrition adjustment was undertaken.
So how do we get out of this vicious cycle where fear of misinterpretation leads to suppression of data, which in turn fuels speculation and suspicion and ultimately results in our inability to design and evaluate good policies? The only solution is to recognise that we need more openness about data coupled with deeper analysis, allowing us to draw informed and balanced conclusions. The onus for this squarely lies with the government. Simply placing basic reports in the public domain is not sufficient, particularly in a news cycle where many journalists are in a hurry to file their stories and cherry-pick results to create headlines.
Spread the net wider
Understaffed and underfunded statistical services cannot possibly have sufficient domain expertise to undertake substantively informed analyses in all the areas for which statistical data are required.
A better way of building a robust data infrastructure may be to ensure that each major data collection activity is augmented by an analytical component led by domain experts, recruited from diverse sources, including academia.
Time to raise the bar
The judiciary needs a mechanism to regulate post-retirement government appointments
Justice A.K. Sikri, a well-regarded judge of the Supreme Court of India, found himself in the eye of a storm arising from accepting a post offered by the government, last year, while being a judge of the court. By later turning down the offer after the controversy erupted, he substantially redeemed the judiciary’s and his own honour. However, this is an issue that recurs frequently. Even titans in the legal field have had to face stinging rebuke from respected members of the fraternity for similar lapses.
The case of M.C. Chagla
For example, take the case of the late Justice M.C. Chagla. Both he and the former Attorney General of India, M.C. Setalvad, were members of the First Law Commission. Speaking as members of the Law Commission they had categorically denounced the proclivity of judges accepting post-retirement jobs sponsored by governments and called for an end to it. Unfortunately, in his post-retirement assignments, Justice Chagla violated the very same principle he had supported.
After retirement, he accepted a government appointment to serve as Indian Ambassador to the U.S. (1958-61) and later as Indian High Commissioner to the U.K (1962- 1963).
Soon after this he was asked to be minister for education in Nehru’s cabinet, which he again accepted. He served as Education Minister (196366) and then as Minister for External Affairs (1966-67).
All this incensed his good friend M.C. Setalvad no end. In his book, My Life: Law and Other Things, he did not mince words in commenting on this serious lapse. He observed: “The Law Commission had, after careful consideration, expressed the unanimous view that the practice of a judge looking forward to accepting employment under the government after retirement was undesirable as it could affect the independence of the judiciary... He was so keen to get into politics that soon after the report was signed by him he resigned his office to become India’s Ambassador to the United States. His action was characteristic of the self-seeking attitude of many of our leading men.”
These harsh words are possibly unfair to a person of the calibre of Chagla. In none of the posts he held could he be accused of having acted as a sidekick to the government.
On the other hand, by declaring in 1965 that the Aligarh Muslim University could not claim minority status conferred under Article 30(1) of the Constitution, he even earned the collective ire of his cabinet members.
However, the shrill denunciations of the Law Commission on judges accepting post-retirement posts and Setalvad’s repeated calls to honour the principle merit acceptance even today.
In a study, the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy pointed out that as many as 70 out of 100 Supreme Court retired judges have taken up assignments in the National Human Rights Commission of India, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, Armed Forces Tribunal, and the Law Commission of India, etc. In Rojer Mathew v. South Indian Bank Ltd. — which is currently going into the issue of tribunalisation of the judiciary and its challenges to the independence of the judiciary — senior counsel Arvind P. Datar, amicus, has observed: “The Tribunals should not be haven for retired persons and appointment process should not result in decisions being influenced if the Government itself is a litigant and appointment authority at the same time.” Mr. Datar has expressed the sentiments of many of us at the Bar.
Striking a balance
At the same time, it is also true that the valuable experience and insights that competent and honest judges acquire during their period of service cannot be wasted after retirement. Unlike abroad, a judge of the higher judiciary in India retires at a comparatively young age and is capable of many more years of productive work.
However, government-sponsored post-retirement appointments will continue to raise a cloud of suspicion over the judgments the best judges delivered while in service. Though cliched, it is true that in law justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done. Therefore, the viable option is to expeditiously establish, through a properly enacted statute, a commission made up of a majority, if not exclusively, of retired judges to make appointments of competent retired judges to tribunals and judicial bodies.
It is true that judges cannot legislate. However, where a void is found in the legal framework that requires immediate attention, and legislative intervention is not likely to emerge immediately, the Supreme Court is empowered to provide an interim solution till legislation is passed to address the hiatus. This process the top court has followed, to cite an instance (there are others), in the Vishaka case, where it laid down guidelines to deal with sexual harassment in workplaces till a law was passed by Parliament. It is desirable the Supreme Court invokes that methodology now and puts in place a process to regulate post-retirement appointments for judges. Such a process must sufficiently insulate the judiciary from the charge of being a recipient of government largesse.
Except for those nursing an acute sense of victimhood, Shashi Tharoor’s engaging polemic, An Era of Darkness, is not a serious, objective work of historical scholarship. While the British rule of India had its rotten side, it had a redeeming one as well. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh had the courage to acknowledge this in his widely publicised July 2005 speech at Oxford University — all without one whit downplaying the harmful aspects of British rule. That is a balanced perspective.
The best of our historians tie themselves in knots toeing a nationalistic line, however unintentional that might be. A widely acclaimed book, India’s Struggle for Independence, by Bipan Chandra and some of India’s best regarded historians, is a case in point. Partition is seen as the outcome of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s intransigence and the Congress’s inability to carry the subcontinent’s Muslims along.
The latter point is Bipan Chandra’s view too. But any historian claiming to be objective would also have highlighted Abul Kalam Azad’s objection to Partition on the grounds that it would reduce, intentionally perhaps, the Muslims from a politically powerful quarter of the population to a less significant and vulnerable minority in free India. Developments since then have proved him right.
The mass killings and forced migration of millions caused by Partition was entirely foreseeable, especially in the light of the extreme violence that accompanied Jinnah’s ‘Direct Action Day,’ a year before. Then why couldn’t independence have been delayed to ensure a less cataclysmic separation? This is rarely discussed anywhere, and never in our schools, where most Indians have their last brush with history, reinforcing life-long prejudices.
It is time we stopped raising generations on a diet of victimhood while at the same time hoping to make peace with those of our neighbours we feel most threatened by. With the evidence now available, we should accept that, far from being victims, we share historical responsibility for our difficult relations with Pakistan and our border dispute with China. As the largest country in the subcontinent, and its principal economic driver, India has a great stake in getting its history right, for lasting peace to follow.
In his perceptive essay, ‘The Decline of Historical Thinking’ in a recent issue of the New Yorker, Eric Alterman observed, “A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans and jingos.” How true of today’s India!
The state of the States
The SDG India Index overlooks the aspect of interdependence of Sustainable Development Goals
India was one among the 193 United Nations member states to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015. It has been making sincere efforts to achieve these goals. The SDG India Index: Baseline Report 2018, released to the public in December 2018 by NITI Aayog, is a useful comparative account of how well different States and Union Territories have performed so far in their efforts to achieve these goals.
In this effort, it has not been possible to establish suitable indicators for three of the 17 goals, including climate action (SDG-13).
This is on account of either lack of identification of appropriate indicators or of the inability to compare different States. On the whole, 62 indicators representing 14 goals have been identified based on their measurability across States over time. A progress performance assessment has been made towards targets set by the Government of India, or the UN SDGs target for 2030, or the average of the three best-performing States. For reasons of comparability, all these indicators are normalized.
Based on a scale of 0 to 100, the States are categorised into four groups: achievers, front runners, performers, and aspirants.
Achievers are those States which have already accomplished the set target.
Front runners are those States that are very close to realizing them.
A majority of the States are categorized as performers and some lag behind as aspirants. Although classification sounds like an appropriate thing to do, there is arbitrariness in the exercise in the sense that in a unitary range, those States with scores till the midpoint are categorized as aspirants and a cluster of States in a close range of progress are termed as performers. A few States are designated as front runners. The three front runner States — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Himachal Pradesh — assume values of 66, 69 and 69, respectively, as against a range of States with values between 50 and 64. With the national score being 57, almost 17 States qualify as above or equal to the national score. Plotted on a graph, there is a negatively skewed distribution of scores with a reasonable tail to the left, a fat presence in the middle, and a tapering to the right. This needs to be recognized in classification; otherwise the arbitrariness with which the classification is made somewhat hints at a purposive designation of a few States in two extremes and a major share of them in between.
The problem of averaging
Further, when one reads into the performance on various SDGs, it is found that many States fall into the aspirant category, especially for SDG-5 (gender equality), SDG-9 (industry innovation and infrastructure) and SDG-11 (sustainable cities and communities).
These kinds of differences could well be emerging owing to a different number of indicators considered under different SDGs as well as their corresponding variability across the States. This is evident in the variation of scores across different goals. For instance, in case of goals 1 and 2, the range for the majority of the States is between 35 and 80. For goals 3 and 6, the range is between 25 and 100. Again, for goal 5, it ranges between 24 and 50.
Given these variations across different goals, merely averaging them not only compromises on robustness but also masks the disaggregated story to a large extent. Not only does the feature of the progress performance pattern need to be recognized in such classification but also the pathway of progress in development indicators, which has a character removed from linearity. Given that this is a measure of progress towards a target, the States near the target get a value closer to one compared to those which are away from the target assuming a lower value. These values are determined in relative terms in the sense that they represent the unitary position of the States within the available scale of gap between the minimum achieved and the target. Such positioning conveys a linear distance, which does not differentiate a given distance between two States which have performed well compared with another pair of States which are far from achieving the target
What can be done?
Finally, the process of aggregation adopted to present the summary index of compliance with the targets being a simple average assumes that each of the goals as well as the corresponding set of indicators are equally important and can substitute for each other.
This also overlooks the aspect of inter-dependence of various goals, although it is upfront stated in the exercise. To ensure minimum robustness of this measure, a geometric average would have served towards avoiding perfect substitutability of one goal with the other. It means achievement of progress in one goal cannot compensate for compromise in another. While this exercise serves as a report card of performance of States as regards compliance with the SDGs, its scientific adequacy is compromised with arbitrariness that presents a stereotypical pattern of performance rather than bringing out surprises.
The choice of indicators representing specific goals need not necessarily be guided by availability but also their explicit independence from one another. This may help in making a uniform set of indicators for each of the goals with proper representation without duplication. On the whole, this performance assessment may not be misleading, but it does not help us understand the relative significance of compliance in some goals that helps in compliance of the other. Thus, performance assessment of SDGs while overlooking the strict interdependence of them may not be rewarding.