Why the recent undermining of the credibility of India’s statistical output is especially regrettable Over the past two months, Indian national statistics and the organisations that administer them have faced a volley of criticism. In January two independent members of the National Statistical Commission resigned in protest, over alleged suppression of economic data by the government. More recently, amidst growing skepticism 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 bemoaned the declining credibility of India’s official statistics. Pioneering history While declining data quality has been an issue for a while, concern over institutional independence is new. What several of these criticisms reference is the fact that India’s national statistics were once internationally renowned among economists and policy professionals for their reliability. In the decades following World War II, India had reason to be proud not only of the institutional independence of national statistical bodies but also — uniquely among developing countries — of a pioneering history of independent data collection and publication. But what exactly was that history? The growth of India’s vast national statistical infrastructure dates back to its first decade as an independent country. 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). The moving spirit behind these 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).
While the British colonial government had made efforts to collect statistics on the subcontinent from the early 19th century, these were provincially organized and geared towards trade and administration.
On the eve of World War II, it had become apparent, both to the colonial government and the Indian National Congress, that any concerted postwar developmental effort would require finegrained statistical information on the national economy. Nehru, Chairman of the Congress’s National Planning Committee, called attention in 1938 to the “fact of the absence of accurate data and statistics.”. Even a decade later, he would admit, “we have no data,” as a result of which, “we function largely in the dark.”
It was this need that would elevate the profile of the Indian Statistical Institute and Mahalanobis, both internationally feted in the 1940s for their scholarly contributions to theoretical and applied statistics.
‘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, co-authoring the textbook on the subject in 1950.
LAUNCHING SAMPLE SURVEYS
By the middle of the twentieth century, the Indian Statistical Institute was globally recognised as a leader in the field of sample surveys. It would soon even begin training statisticians from other developing countries.
The famed English statistician R.A. Fischer observed that its achievements “brought India not far from the centre of statistical map of the world.”
The Institute’s fingerprints were readily apparent in the creation of India’s National Income Committee, the Central Statistical Organisation, the International Statistical Education Centre in Calcutta, and the National Sample Survey — all created around the mid-century mark.
The inaugural National Sample Survey was, as the Hindustan Times reported in 1953, “the biggest and most comprehensive sampling inquiry ever undertaken in any country in the world.”
These were, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton put it, the “world’s first system of household surveys to apply the principles of random sampling.” The sheer scale seemed foolhardy, even to sympathetic statisticians. As the American statistician W. Edwards Deming recalled: “We in this country [U.S.], though accustomed to large scale sample surveys, were aghast at Mahalanobis’ plans for the national sample surveys of India. Their complexity and scope seemed beyond the bounds of possibility.”
The first survey, performed by hundreds of dedicated staff, involved manifold challenges according to reports: in Odisha’s forested areas investigators had to be accompanied by armed guards; in the Himalayas they waited for the snows to melt in the passes; in Assam they encountered “naked tribes” who did “not know what money means”; and elsewhere they waded through “deep jungles infested with wild-beasts and man eaters.”
The results of the National Sample Survey offered high-definition snapshots of the country’s material life — casting light on cost of living, crop estimates, household consumption, industry, trade, and land holding patterns. Twenty years later, the once sceptical Edwards Deming was now a convert: “No country, developed, under-developed or over-developed, has such a wealth of information about its people as India.”
The contemporary Singaporean statistician Y.P. Seng observed that by comparison that China had “no genuine statistics” and so India’s example of using surveys would “serve as a guide and an example worthy of imitating”.
The Planning Commission, beginning in 1962, used the data the National Sample Survey generated by its household surveys to craft the country’s poverty line.
India was a frontrunner in this regard: the United States developed its own poverty line three years later. • With their combined influence on the UN Statistical Commission and the UN Sub-Commission on Statistical Sampling, the Indian Statistical Institute and the National Sample Survey continue to have a lasting impact on estimating poverty across the developing world.
Methods pioneered by the National Sample Survey have become the norm for household surveys across the globe. For example, the Living Standard Measurement Study surveys conducted in several countries by the World Bank can trace their lineage back to the work of Indian statisticians associated with the Indian Statistical Institute and the National Sample Survey. An anomaly? 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. Reality of impunity, rhetoric of human rights Isolated innovations are not enough to stop cases of custodial torture
In May 2017, addressing representatives from countries at the UN’s Human Rights Council, the then Attorney General of India said, “The concept of torture is completely alien to our culture and it has no place in the governance of the nation.”
Last week in Sitamarhi district, Bihar, two families received the bodies of their two sons from the police. The two men were questioned at the Dumra police station for a case of theft and murder in the area. Instead, they came back dead.
The ritual bathing revealed torture — tell-tale marks of nails hammered into their thighs and wrists.
A common story in India
Between the rhetoric of Geneva and the reality at Dumra lies the all too frequent story, in India, of police torture. We are rightly cautioned to call it ‘alleged murder’ until proven in court. But the story we come across is too common for us to suspend belief.
More than a week has passed. The motions of taking action have begun but there are clear signs of routine impunity. Top police officials in Bihar have recognised that the custodial deaths were “unacceptable”. There were some transfers and the policemen who were implicated were suspended and had a criminal case filed against them. A First Information Report has been registered. But in the first instance, the policemen who were implicated were not named. They were arrested and taken into custody but escaped, allegedly with the help of local police. They remain untraceable.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is content giving the Bihar Police six weeks to explain its conduct.
A plea from several concerned civil society representatives urging the immediate dispatch of an NHRC team to Sitamarhi has been turned down. For now, it’s wait and watch
What Statistics Show
That torture is ‘endemic’ across police stations in India is well known. Official statistics show that last year there were 144 deaths in police custody.
About 40% of complaints received every year by the NHRC are against the police — mainly for custodial violence.
Though forbidden by law, the system perpetuates and incentivizes torture. Top police officials tolerate it, turn a blind eye to it, citing it as a ‘practical tool’, or go easy on the perpetrators; Bihar will be a space to watch. Those in the lower judiciary, which is the first point of check against custodial violence, are frequently not vigilant in checking if arrested persons are secure in custody, have a lawyer assigned, or have the means to speak out
Often, pliant doctors further weaken protections to those in custody by willingly minimizing or not disclosing the nature of the harm or injuries they have sustained. Oversight bodies like police complaints authorities and human rights commissions are comfortable with the slow pace of accountability from state actors and do no doggedly pursue outcomes.
The brazenness is strengthened when legal precedents towards torture prevention are not paid heed to. South Asia is among the last regions where the political executive must grant permission before public servants can be prosecuted for acts done in the course of their work.
Courts have repeatedly said that torture is no part of policing and so there is no question of waiting for permission for prosecution. Yet, the executive is still asked, decisions are delayed, and trials cannot proceed.
According to judicial precedent, recovery of evidence made as a result of torture cannot be used in court, but without proactive lawyers and magistrates, these important details are overlooked in the early stages of the legal process. For victims of torture, this means a harder fight in courts.
Besides being illegal and immoral, torture is not even a useful tool to stop crime. Eliciting unreliable confessions — the bedrock of the use of torture — destroys the process of deciding through evidence-based means whether the accused is the real perpetrator or not. Moreover, whenever it goes unpunished, torture actually supports more crime by creating a class of criminals within law enforcement. You cannot have a cohort of torturers masquerading as officers of the law while they destroy it.
Feeble course correction
There have been attempts to restrain the use of torture. The Kerala Police Act puts the onus on all police officers to report any physical torture they know of. Prisons in Telangana refuse to admit people brought into judicial custody if they appear injured; such persons are sent back to hospitals, forcing their injuries to be properly recorded
But isolated innovations are not enough to stop this horror that has embedded itself in the subculture of policing. A comprehensive solution would be to ensure that disincentives are put in place and that there is proper accountability. But there is a lack of political will.
India signed the UN Convention against Torture in 1997, but despite repeated domestic and international recommendations to ratify it, there has been no attempt to create a specific and comprehensive torture prevention law.
This is in sharp contrast with Bangladesh, which passed a strong law in 2013. Until we have such a law, Indians must accept that the active tolerance of torture puts punishment before the crime and judgment in the hands of the wrong agency. This violates the rule of law in every way.
For those who now plead on behalf of the police personnel of Sitamahri and say “let the law take its course”, this is absolutely right. Let the effort to establish guilt or innocence be thorough and speedy. Sadly, for Mohammad Gufran, 30, and Mohammad Taslim, 35, their guilt or innocence will never be known after their death that day in Dumra police station. It is all so very far from the resplendent halls of the UN in Geneva and the averments of India’s highest law officer