Not without data

census, data, data gathering, surveys, attack on survey officials, caa nrc, modi govt, narendra modi, indian economy, demonetisation, gst, indian express

Policymakers, economists and even firms selling products to consumers in this country are today operating in a data vacuum.

Policymakers, economists and even firms selling products to consumers in this country are today operating in a data vacuum. The last available detailed official survey on household consumption expenditure was done for 2011-12. The most comprehensive data on household amenities — to do with dwelling size and building material used or access to electricity, drinking water, latrine, wastewater drainage and banking facilities — is, likewise, available only from the 2011 Census. The Narendra Modi government’s successful schemes for providing universal rural housing or LPG and electricity connections, too, have identified beneficiaries from the information revealed by the Socio Economic and Caste Census of 2011. The National Statistical Office (NSO) did carry out an all-India household consumption expenditure survey for 2017-18, but its results haven’t been released on grounds of “data quality issues”. There are assorted nationwide surveys such as the one on rural financial inclusion for 2016-17 by NABARD and that on drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and housing condition for 2017-18 by NSO. They, again, don’t provide sufficient granular data for either analytical or policy intervention purposes.

Between 2011 and now, much has happened in the Indian economy, whose effects at the household level are still not fully clear. For instance, what have demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST) actually done to incomes and expenditures, especially in the informal sector? Is the growth data based on national accounts statistics properly capturing the decline in the informal economy, which, at least in the pre-demonetisation/GST period, employed the majority of the country’s workforce and even supplied goods and services for the formal sector? Currently, much of analysis on the impact of demonetisation and GST is shooting in the dark, relying on anecdotal evidence or looking at how prices and wages have moved in the recent period. But these cannot substitute for NSO surveys on monthly per capita expenditures that are also the basis for measurement of poverty ratios. Nor are we able to gauge what difference low food inflation seen during the Modi government’s tenure made to spending by households — and possibly insulating them in a low income, jobs and investment growth scenario.

This is where reports of field enumerators coming under attack — due to gathering “mistrust” over the Citizenship Amendment Act and its perceived link to a National Register of Citizens — are disturbing. The house-listing phase of the 2021 Census, when enumerators will visit homes seeking information on amenities and ownership of assets, is to start from this April. The NSO’s household consumption expenditure survey for 2020-21 is, similarly, scheduled from July. The responsibility for assuaging citizens’ concerns lies solely with the Modi government.