Informed policymaking requires continuous data generation — COVID crisis is compounding the challenge.

The novel coronavirus has, no doubt, created a war-like situation. The census and other surveys being put off by even a year shouldn’t, to that extent, be held against the government.

For a country already short of recent large sample survey-based data — nobody knows whether and how much poverty has fallen in the last decade or if consumption of vegetables and protein-rich foods is growing at the same rate as before — the COVID crisis makes matters worse. The National Statistical Office (NSO) was to undertake its household consumer expenditure (HCE) survey for 2020-21 from July, which is now practically ruled out. The houselisting phase of the Census, crucial for carving out and assigning “blocks” to field enumerators tasked with collecting household/individual-level information, was scheduled during April-September. Its postponing could have a bearing on the main census slated for February-March 2020. Since the houselisting and enumeration blocks are also used for the rural development ministry’s Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), it points to serious data challenges ahead.

The novel coronavirus has, no doubt, created a war-like situation. The census and other surveys being put off by even a year shouldn’t, to that extent, be held against the government. This argument, however, lacks justification when there has been no officially-released HCE survey, normally conducted every five years, after 2011-12. Nor is there a single field survey-based government study capturing the impact of demonetisation, goods and services tax or even programmes such as Mudra and Jan Dhan Yojana on household incomes, consumption and poverty. Contrast this to the 2011-12 period, when there was a surfeit of information from the census, SECC and the NSO’s HCE and employment-and-unemployment surveys. The NSO carried out an HCE survey for 2017-18, but its report was withheld, apparently for showing a decline in real rural consumption on the back of rising farm distress. Any survey now or even in 2021-22 may throw up similar, if not worse, results. Will that, then, act as a deterrent to not release them as well?

The time has come for the government to move to a continuous mode (annually and quarterly, as opposed to five-yearly) of doing large sample surveys. Technology (use of handheld GPS-enabled devices) and rotational panel sampling design can easily enable this. If a private data analytics company like the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy can, through its Consumer Pyramids Household Surveys, cover over 1.74 lakh households annually, there’s no reason why the NSO cannot. It has, in fact, made a beginning through its periodic labour force surveys from 2017-18. Informed policymaking requires continuous data generation, for which one shouldn’t wait for a “normal” year that also suits the government.

Courtesy The Indian Express