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Private sources become a treasure for India as govt data becomes unreliable and sparse

Lack of fundamental data, including census data, hurts the nation's statistical system and policy analysis. In this situation, CMIE, CRISIL, and Skymet have emerged as trustworthy suppliers of high-quality data.

Is the data market in India becoming more and more private? That is how it would appear, though obviously not totally.

Think about the following: The most frequently quoted employment statistics come from surveys conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), whose sample size is the same as that of the government.

The non-profit organisation Pratham, which yearly releases a study of education that is much awaited, is perhaps the most reliable source of information on the actual state of school education in India.

IHS Markit’s purchasing managers’ index, a reliable indicator of the pace of the economy, is one of the other figures that are closely watched. The go-to source for information on a company’s creditworthiness is an analytics company called CRISIL. And for a variety of statistics on technological challenges, the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Economic Research (CTIER) is unmatched.

In the meantime, a commercial monsoon forecaster like Skymet has outperformed the government’s meteorology division in at least some years. Many people will question the official data when the World Health Organization reports that the number of Covid-related deaths in India is ten times higher than reported by the government.

Even the Reserve Bank of India, which continues to be a trustworthy source for high-quality statistics, struggles to keep up with the pace and variety of information available on corporate sector performance. Such examples might be continued forever.

In the last two or three decades, organisations including the CMIE, Pratham, CRISIL, Skymet, IHS Markit, CTIER, and others have emerged or gained notoriety. This is appropriate since a developing economy would have new and varied sources of data, including ones with a digital origin. The government may disagree with some of the nation rankings published by international non-governmental organisations, such as the most recent one on a hunger index, but its own numbers are becoming more and more contentious.

As a result, certain crucial economic indicators released by the government are of questionable quality and unreliable frequency; for many of them, there is no comparable private alternative.

Beyond 2011–12, the nation lacks consumption survey data (the numbers for 2017-18 were suppressed). The same has been true of employment statistics: the government has stifled data while attempting to replace the outdated, widely accepted figures with imperfect stand-ins like the number of persons with provident fund accounts. Additionally, historical GDP figures have undergone numerous revisions.

Even the census, which has been conducted every ten years since 1881, was last due in 2021. Covid is cited as the cause, yet people have been able to move around without Chinese-style lockdowns for at least a year. But the survey work won’t start until the next year.

The census provides a variety of socioeconomic statistics in addition to the population count. The damage that is caused to the statistics system and to policy analysis as a result of the lack of such fundamental data ought to be clear-cut.

Not every change is for the worse. The government has increased the frequency of some data releases (such as the quarterly GDP data, which did not exist before), improved the methodology of other data packs, and accelerated the release of some numbers (such as trade statistics) or made them more transparent (such as tax and fiscal data).

However, you only need to visit practically any economic ministry’s website to see how much of the information there is outdated, insufficient, and occasionally even skewed to hide unfavourable truths. Statistics have evolved into a political issue, like many other things.

Digitization has significantly changed things and shed new light on previously data-dark areas of the industry. For instance, all types of lenders benefit from the information that the new credit bureaus collect about businesses’ and peoples’ credit histories. Similar to this, the expansion of online purchasing and payment methods has given rise to new sources of consumer behaviour data.

Without data that passes the standards of speed, frequency, dependability, and completeness, an economy that aspires to become the third-largest in the world in less than ten years cannot plan or operate effectively. Therefore, the emergence of private data sources is a highly advantageous development. The government should be challenged to improve its track record of generating accurate and timely statistics.

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