New Delhi: Former chairman of National Statistical Commission (NSC), PC Mohanan, after crunching numbers for the government for almost 35 years, found himself in a political storm months before the Lok Sabha election and decided to vacate the chair on January 28.
The resignation was in protest of a delay in releasing a new set of jobs statistics, the NSSO report, which showed that unemployment in 2017-18 hit a 45-year-high of 6.1 per cent. Another member of the NSC, J Meenakshi, quit with him.
Ministry of statistics and programme implementation, in its statement the very next day had an undertone of surprise when it said, "These concerns were not expressed by the members in any of the meetings of the Commission in the last few months."
However, in an interview with News18, Mohanan said they he had mentioned the problems in the commission's annual report and also met the ministry's secretary to discuss the issues before putting down his papers.
Three days later, the jobs numbers, unflattering for the current government, were leaked to the Business Standard newspaper.
The figures are potentially crucial before the election, due to be held by May, as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) struggles to win over voters concerned about depressed farm incomes and a lack of job creation. India needs to create more than a million jobs each month just to find employment for young people entering the workforce.
Edited Excerpts of the interview:
Immediately after your resignation, the Centre came up with a clarification stating that the issues were not raised in official meeting. What do you make of that?
The commission prepares an annual report to be presented to the parliament by the ministry of statistics every year along with an action taken report. These are public documents available in the website of the ministry. The lack of support from the government and the problems faced by the commission are specifically noted in these reports. Therefore, the statement from the government that the commission members did not bring the issues to their notice are unfounded.
We had also met the secretary, Pravin Srivastava, three-four days prior to the resignation to discuss our problems. After all this, Meenakshi and I decided that it’s better to resign.
What was the trouble with GDP back data?
I personally did not appreciate the involvement of the NITI Aayog in the release of the back series GDP data as they don’t have any role in the production of national statistics. It is an accepted practice everywhere that key official data are produced by statistical agencies functioning with certain autonomy.
Chairman of Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, Bibek Debroy in a recent statement said that they will come up with a new report where they will prove that jobs have risen. What do you make of this?
I have not seen this statement. But if anyone uses the same data set then she is bound to get the same results. So a new report needs a new set of data.
Are there any more reports that the Centre has brushed under the carpet or tried to in the past?
I am not aware of any.
Is it safe to conclude that this being an election year, the Centre knew about the consequences and was deliberately delaying the report?
This is not an issue for me. Official statistics are to be published as per a pre-decided calendar. One of the fundamental principles of official statistics is that it has to honour citizen’s entitlement for public information and every statistical agency is mandated to follow this.
What was your role as the chairman of the NSC?
I became a member of the National Statistical Commission in June 2017 and the acting chairman in November 2018. The commission is the apex body dealing with all official statistics in the country. It also has oversight functions in all technical matters relating to the National Sample Survey Organization. The Chairman presides over the meetings of the commission and ensures that its mandate is fulfilled.
As the former chairman and a noted statistician what is your analysis of the current employment scenario in the country?
The job of an official statistician is to produce reliable statistics for the country using the most appropriate statistical techniques. The concern of the statistician is to ensure that the concepts and definitions used are relevant and as per international standards. It is not the job of the official statistician to comment on the employment scenario, but ensure that the scenario is captured in the data. A close look at the available employment data from surveys in the past indicates that a real transformation is taking place in the country with regard to participation in economic activities.
Do you think there is a genuine lack of employment data? What can be the reason?
India used to have employment statistics from the NSSO usually at an interval of five years, while advanced economies produce employment data quarterly or even monthly. In an effort to have more frequent employment data in the country the commission recommended a new series of surveys called the Periodic Labour Force Surveys.
One reason for conducting the surveys at five-year intervals in the past was the feeling that the employment situation in India does not change as quickly as it happens in advanced economies. The dominant sector employing people used to be the agriculture sector and the employment was mostly in the informal sector. One usually does not expect changes in the employment pattern in such a situation as in countries where the business cycles affects employment.
What is the general procedure for a NSSO report to be published? When did you approve this report?
The commission had approved this report on December 5, 2018.
Before the setting up of the Commission in 2006, the report of the NSSO was approved by the chairman of the Governing Council of NSSO. This council was an independent body headed by experts with impeccable credentials like Prof V N Dandekar, Prof B S Minhas, Prof Pravin Visaria and Prof Suresh Tendulkar. After the setting up of the NSSO, the council was dissolved and its functions transferred to the NSC.
All survey reports are submitted to the commission. The members and chairman examine the reports. As the estimates in the survey are based on statistical methods there is no scope of changing the figures once the tables are finalised by the NSSO.
In brief, what is the methodology behind the NSSO survey? What do you make of Niti Aayog’s claim that this report cannot be compared to other employment-unemployment surveys?
The NSC decides the subject of surveys to be taken up by NSSO. After the subjects are decided the NSC appoints a Working Group of experts from the concerned domains to guide the survey. The group broadly consists of domain experts, sample survey specialists, data from government and outside.
Usually the surveys are household surveys or establishment surveys where the responding units are selected using the best possible sampling techniques.
Whether or not the results of two large-scale sample surveys on a given subject are comparable depends mainly on (i) the concepts, definitions, reference periods (ii) how the sample of households are drawn and (iii) how closely the set procedures are followed in field work.
As for the first factor there is virtually no difference between the last employment & unemployment survey conducted in 2011-12 and the PLFS. For its household surveys, the NSSO has been using basically the same sampling design over the years, with some fine tuning made every year with the objective of improving accuracy of important estimates.
The fine tunings are not known to have brought about any significant change in accuracy of the estimates and thus do not make the results of two surveys “not comparable”. The main outcome of a labour force surveys are estimates of employment and unemployment rates.
How do you co-relate the two: falling jobs according to the NSSO report and ever-rising growth rates according to the CSO?
Due to the absence of high frequency data on employment and the preponderance of informal employment, it is not easy to relate economic growth and employment in India. Please remember that NSSO does not measure, falling jobs, but only gives estimates of levels of employment in terms of work participation rates and unemployment rates etc.
What is your next innings? What are you planning next after stepping down as the NSC chairman?
I spent nearly 35 years in government service and after retirement spent time freelancing as a consultant for international agencies and some Indian think tanks before joining the commission. I look forward to a retired life in my home town in Kerala.