Reliable data, good policy

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News: Reliable and timely public data have a direct bearing on the state’s capability to effectively design and implement programmes.

The coverage and reporting of Census data have vastly improved since independence. Among the emerging economies, India is credited to have a relatively robust public data system generated through its decennial Census and yearly sample surveys on specific themes.

However, some present trends regarding data collections are concerning.

What are the concerns?

Firstly, increasing delays, in the release of the collected data,  despite the latest data processing technologies. This renders such data less useful for policy intervention. The delay also implies less public scrutiny and hence undermines accountability. For instance, the government refrained from releasing the data collected through the Socio-Economic and Caste Census.

Secondly, the issue of comparability. The recent changes introduced by the government w.r.t the estimation of GDP had made comparisons over time impossible. The revisions undertaken do not improve the quality of estimates. They are driven more by political considerations than by the need to improve accuracy.

Thirdly, sample surveys, which are an important policy instrument for many welfare schemes, are not conducted periodically. For example, the quinquennial ‘Monthly Household Consumer Expenditure’ (MHCE).

The MHCE provides the database to compute the poverty line and poverty ratio. The government also uses the poverty estimates to decide on the State-wise allocation of food grains to be sold at subsidised prices through the Public Distribution System. Despite its importance, MHCE data collected in 2017-18 could not be released due to data quality issues.

Further, The GoI has also postponed the decennial census in 2021 to 2022 on the grounds that COVID-19.

What are the implications of non-availability of reliable data?

Affects the framing of policies: Without reliable data, it becomes difficult to frame policy solutions relating to social issues such as food and nutrition security, etc.

Increase dependence on unreliable surveys: In the absence of timely and reliable public data, users are increasingly relying on data provided through large-scale surveys conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). However, users have raised questions about the design and data collection framework of the CMIE’s high-frequency household survey.

Source: This post is based on the article “Reliable data, good policy” published in The Hindu on 22nd November 2021.

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