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Build Amrit Kaal Bharat With Latest Quality Data

OCTOBER 30, 2023

By Naresh Minocha, Consulting Editor

THE I.N.D.I.A.-BJP cacophony over the demand for caste census has deflected attention from core issues. The foremost is the impact of unprecedented delay in the launch of Population Census 2021, thereby blurring Amrit Kaal vision.

The findings of such decennial census have served as the primary building block for future socio-political- economic development of the nation since first national census in 1881.Census 2021 is, however, a special one and hence more important for attaining Amrit Kaal.

Other vital missing bricks or blocks in the foundation for Amrit Kaal Bharat/New India would figure during the course of this column.

The 2021 census would now be conducted after the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The delay's effect would be colossal if assessed against the invaluable advantages reaped by Modi Government from the 2011 census. It, for instance, enabled the Government to map 22 welfare schemes including free LPG connection scheme for the poor named Ujjwala Yojana .

As put by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, "Data is new gold." He stated this at # Howdy Modi event at Houston, Texas on 22nd September 2019. Applying this quote to census data, one can say that data generated and analysed from delayed, digital census would be diamond-studded 24-carat gold.

Describing census 2021 as "Rashtriya Yagya" at an event held during September 2019, the Union Minister for Home Affairs, Amit Shahstated: "this exercise would lead to development in the Nation for next many decades to come and bring smiles to the people of the country."

The smiles have proved elusive for countless faces especially among 30 lakh field functionaries such as primary teachers who serve as enumerators. The Union Cabinet noted in 2019 that Census 2021 would generate around 2.4 crore man-days employment.

Mr. Shah added: "this is the first time that the National Population Register (NPR) would come into being as the result of the Census exercise. This is a new initiative altogether which would be a solution to multifarious problems facing the country that range from effective maintenance of law and order to efficient implantation of welfare schemes like MGNREGS, food security and nutrition campaigns etc."

Mr. Shah perhaps drew inspiration from Mr. Modi, who as PM and earlier as CM, highlighted benefits of different census with specific instances.

Way back in January 2012, Mr Modi recalled how he launched Gujarat's fight against malnutrition after reading about gravity of this problem in the report of 2001 census, which was released in 2004.

Mr Modi even pitched invaluable value of a census before the diamond industry during March 2017. PM stated: "It is important for the industry to plan its growth. But that is not enough. It is also necessary for you to think of the weakest among you. The Council should consider taking a census of the lowest-paid and least prosperous persons in your industry, for example the workers living in places like Jaipur, Thrissur, Varanasi, Rajkot, Jaipur and Coimbatore. Can the industry ensure that every one of them is enrolled in the Government's low-cost social security schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana for accident insurance."

It is unfortunate that apart from population count, two other strategic census have also been delayed. What is more deplorable is this triad of delays has happened under the Government that flaunts its passion for speed and scale in its initiatives.

The delayed agricultural census is the second missing element in the foundation laid for Amrit Kaal. Such census helps policy makers revamp existing schemes in keeping with changing ground reality.

Agricultural census also serves as the plank for formulating new schemes keeping in view ever-shrinking average size of farms, transformation of marginal farmers into landless labourers. The results of this exercise too are expected to be available after 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Mr Modi succinctly articulated the importance of such census in Rajya Sabha in February 2021. He recalled how late Chaudhary Charan Singh, a leading champion of farmers' interests& ex-PM,cited agricultural census to highlight basic problems of farming. In his speech, Mr. Modi quoted Mr. Singh at length twice.

The third delayed element of foundation for New India is the report of Seventh Economic Census (SEC), which was launched in 2019. This involved enumeration of every enterprise in the country for varied benefits including improving tax revenue by spotting scope for GST & income tax evasion.

SEC even generated data on cobblers, tailors, etc. who daily use a particular spot on a footpath and wind up their operations at sunset. Such businesses were enumerated as residential Economic Census House without fixed structure.

As put by SEC "vision document" in 2018, SEC was conceived to provide "A nation-wide Business Register as per international practices adopted by

developing countries and in line with UNSD recommendations."

It stated: "The National Business Register will establish dynamic linkages, using API/Web Services with the existing national databases for 6th Economic Census, Annual Survey of Industries, MCA-21, GST, EPFO, ESIC, Udyog Aadhar (MSME) and list of establishments maintained under State Registering authorities." It envisaged periodic updating of register with latest data from districts and states as and when made available.

The Government has shown no urgency to finalize and release SEC report in spite of forceful recommendations made twice by Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Finance during August 2022 and July 2023.

The Centre has blamed the States for delay in approving data collected from their territories. PSC dubbed Government's explanations to rationalize delay as "routine reply." In general, it has blamed Covid-19 for the delay in all census and surveys.

It is pertinent to note here the Government's inaction on certain recommendations and observations made by Task Force (TF) on Improving Employment Data. TF submitted its draft report during Jun 2017 under the leadership of Niti Aayog Vice Chairman.

TF recommended: "For the Economic Census (EC) to be relevant, its frequency needs to be increased to once in every three years. In addition to providing a full picture of the workforce structure by enterprise size and sector classification, such a survey will also provide the sample frame for a periodic survey of enterprises of all sizes across all sectors."

To implement 'Sabka Saath, Sabkha Vikas Sabka Vishwas ' theme,the Government should bringrag-picking kids under EC. They do earn income for their parents by selling collected trash. They, of course, don't go to school in spite of constitution-guaranteed right to free education upto secondary school, leave aside Government's resolve against child labour.

Similarly, EC should capture data on army of foot salespersons, who eke out a living by selling their wares on foot at traffic signals and in the vicinity of religious, tourist and entertainment sites.

Why beggars are not covered under EC even though begging is a whole-time, lifetime profession for millions of Bharat vasi ?

The 1 st EC was undertaken in 1977, 2 nd one in 1980 and 3 rd one in 1990. The 4th EC was conducted in 1998 and 5th one in 2005. The 6 th EC was heldduring 2013.

The image of foundation-less New Bharat appears more blurred & alarming if we factor in Government's decision to not make public the findings of household consumption expenditure survey (HCES) conducted during July2017-June2018. Large sample-based HCES is enabler for determining incidence of poverty across the nation.

News stories from leaked HCES report showed fall in consumer expenditure for the first time in 40 years and hence rise in poverty in India. Responding to such news, the Government claimed that HCES had certain "discrepancies" and cited "data quality issues."

According to an official release dated15 th November 2019, the Governmenthas decided to not release HCES results of2017-2018. The Government is separately “examining the feasibility of conducting the next Consumer Expenditure Survey in2020-2021 and 2021-22 after incorporating all data quality refinementsin the survey process."

This poverty data secrecy was preceded by abandonment of Prime Minister's Office (PMO's) 2015 resolve to unveil a functional definition of poverty. In the absence of such fundamentals, NDA regimeroutinely citesUPA-era 2011-12 poverty data every time while fieldingparliament questions on the subject. It has been doing so ever since it came to power in mid-2014.

"Hiding data to please political masters is not only harming the once-stellar

reputation of the country but also preventing policy-makers from taking

corrective measures", stated former World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu at a conference in September 2021.

Hold-back of Indian poverty data hampered the World Bank in monitoring global poverty as the country is perceived widely as home to the world's largest number of poor by virtue of being most populous nation. The Government would no doubt dismiss such perception by reiterating that it has almost wiped out extreme poverty under Mr. Modi's leadership.

As put by the World Bank's 'Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020: Reversals of Fortune ' report, "the lack of recent data for India severely hinders the

ability to monitor global poverty."

The Government is not perturbed by the popularity of the Consumer Pyramid

Household Survey (CPHS) among researchers for measuring poverty & inequality in India. CPHS is undertaken by private data collection company named the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).CPHS data is valued by researchers in spite of its limitations as an alternative to official data.

It is here apt to quote the World Bank's Policy Research Working Paper (PRWP) titled 'Poverty in India Has Declined over the Last Decade But Not As Much As Previously Thought '. It was released in April 2022.

PRWP says: "The CPHS may be preferred to alternative data sources used to date for several reasons (but remains second-best to the NSS household consumption expenditure survey for poverty measurement). First, it collects detailed expenditure information on about 115 items, offering household consumption data for the first time since the NSS-2011. Second, the CPHS contains a panel of approximately 174,000 households that covers 28 states representing over 95% of India's population. Third, it is conducted continuously at four-month intervals

since its launch in January 2014. This opens the possibility of tracking poverty and inequality at a frequency higher than what has been traditionally feasible based on NSO's quinquennial consumption expenditure surveys."

The World Bank's Poverty and Shared Prosperity report for 2022 has banked on CPHS for estimating recent rise in the number of teeming poor. As put by the report, "India has not published official survey data on poverty since 2011. Given the country's size and importance for global and regional poverty estimates, the CPHS data help fill an important gap."

CPHS data implies an increase of 56 million in the number of poor people in India, as compared to an increase of 23 million implied by a national accounts-based projection, according to the report.

The uncertainty over reality of poverty dynamics has been accentuated by the absence of any communication on below the poverty line (BPL) survey.The last such survey was done in 2002.

UPA regime had replaced BPL survey with Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011. With Modi Government now opposed to caste census, the prospects of 2 nd SECC appear bleak.

As put by the official release dated 26th July 2017, "The SECC has paved the way for better targeting of the poor and evidence based targeted intervention for ameliorating conditions of the poor households."

The country requires either a BPL survey or fresh SECC to update data on the poor, especially a new class of urban poor. The world bank identified this class as a fallout of stringent lock-outs during the covid pandemic in India.

Caste census-averse Government ought to clarify whether it would revive BPL survey as separate initiative or make it an integral part of delayed population census.

Non-disclosure of caste data generated through Rs. 4893.60-crore SECC has led certain States to undertake their own caste surveys. This is bound to complicate conflicts over caste-based reservations, apart from wastage of public expenditure. As census is primarily the Centre's responsibility, NDA government should make public, SECC report as well as that of Commission for sub-categorisation of other backward classes (OBCs). The reports should be prefaced with a caveat about their limitations as caste spelled in many ways by enumerators and respondents. It should also specify the Government's inability to verify castes in the absence of central registry of castes. Votaries of caste politics might here pitch for a new mantra for Bharat -'One Nation; One Caste Register& One Caste Census. '

The Government is maintaining deafening silence over the fate of report of OBC panel that submitted its report on 31 st July 2023 after being given 14 extensions in tenure.

The Government constituted OBC sub-categorisation commission in August 2017 with mandate to submit its report within 12 weeks from the date of appointment of chairperson. The commission has reported recommended splitting of 27% OBC quota among defined sub-categories of OBCs.

It is time for Majboot Sarkar to walk the talk on its capability to take speedy and tough decisions. It is time to bite the bulleton castes-driven social justice and welfare.

The Centre should thus now convene a meeting of either Inter-State Council or National Integration Council to arrive at a political consensus on caste census. The political class should jointly disclosehow should Bharat tackle conflicting demands from different sections of society for reservations in education, jobs and promotions.

Should reservation outcry be fuelled by caste and communal politics-driven growth in population? Remember Rahul Gandhi's spin: 'jitniabadiutnahaq' (The reservation rights should be in keeping with the size of population).

As for data & ideas deficit in other spheres impacting the foundation for Amrit Kaal, consider the importance of two vital missing documents. These are: 1)seven-years growth strategy and 2) 15-years Vision document. These two reports were to be prepared by NITI Aayog (NA) as part of "National Development Agenda" to comply withPMO's advisory dated 9th May 2016.

These crucial documents were either not prepared or have been kept as topsecret ones like the Rafale deal files. NA made public only the 'Three Year Action Agenda' for 2017-18 to 2019-20. It was also envisaged by PMO. NA also released report captioned 'Strategy for New India @ 75 ' during November 2018.

Should the Government not enlighten the public about ideas that failed to take off from these two documents? What about the missed targets mentioned in these documents?

As aptly put by the World Bank in 2020 in a document on aborted Indian project for improving statistics quality, "Policy makers and citizens expect more information, in real time, at a level of detail that is not always feasible through traditional surveys, in easily accessible formats, and all the while protecting privacy and confidentiality."

Ponder over information-cum-data deficit resulting from scrapping of the five-year planning. One of its invaluable features was submission of data-rich reports by almost hundred working groups, sub-groups and steering committees on wide range of economic and social issues. Such reports helped industries and investors in planning their strategies and operations.

The Government's indifference towards timeliness, credibility and disclosure of diverse data is evident from the premature closure of the World Bank-aided project for improvement of statistical system without availing a penny from the sanctioned loan.

Mooted in 2019, the project was closed in 2021 through loan cancellation. It was conceived to "support the Government of India's efforts to reform and modernize the national statistical system by bolstering the professional independence of official statistics producers, guaranteeing high quality standards, strengthening priority-setting and responsiveness to all users, providing greater transparency and accountability, ensuring cohesiveness of the vertically and horizontally decentralized statistical system, and building business continuity capabilities."

The aborted National Programme for Improving the Quality of Statistics in India (NPIQSI) had four macro components: 1) Improving Survey Data Quality; 2)Making Most ofExisting Data;3) Enhancing User Relevance of Published Statistics and 4) Setting up Project Management Support.

As put by NPIQSI project report, "Sample sizes are not adequate for generating reliable data for administrative units below the state level; and traditional survey methodologies struggle to keep up with dynamism in the economy."

It added: "Credible nationwide data on non-monetary indicators of well-being is not frequently available".

The Government should muster courage to admit such criticism as well-meaning advice for laying solid foundation for Amrit Kaal Bharat. It should thus revive WB's proposed 'First Statistics Reform and Modernization Development Policy Loan'. In 2021, WB had listed this as project in pipeline to be finalized in 2023. There is no information available on this project.

To realize vision of transforming Bharat as beacon for strife-torn, growth deficit world, the Government should take a leaf from OECD's Chief Statistician Paul Schreyer's blog penned during April 2023.

He wrote: "Quality statistics must be relevant in that they serve the purposes of their users. They must be accurate, as timely as needed, accessible in a user-friendly format, easy to interpret and coherent, i.e., they can be meaningfully combined or compared across datasets. Importantly, quality statistics also feature good metadata, with clear information on sources and methods."

India needs quality statistics in abundant quantity to lay a deep, ever-lasting foundation for Amrit Kaal.


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