Are our number-crunchers geared for the digital age?

Richa Mishra | Updated on August 01, 2019 Published on August 01, 2019

The Indian Statistical Service is in serious need of a revamp. Will it happen?

From GDP numbers to jobs figures, government data has come under the scanner lately. Official statistics has become a highly controversial subject. But who are the back-room players crunching numbers? Did you know that these figures are generated by 800-odd people who come through the Indian Statistical Service (ISS) and 4,000-odd through subordinate services (group B)?

The ISS has its own set of challenges under which it operates — for starters, its position vis a vis other government services. Is there an overlap with Indian Economic Service (IES)? Is the staff strength enough? And should the National Statistical Commission not be given statutory status like the Comptroller & Auditor General of India or the Election Commission of India? A cadre review is coming up in 2020 and the Indian Statistical Service Association (ISSA) is hoping that it will lead decision-makers to revamp the structure of the service and develop the capacity of the official statistical system to meet the needs of new-age, information-based, policymaking.

“Data once collected cannot be changed, therefore the job we do is not easy. The main components of our work include data collection, process, analysis and interpretation. The challenge is to not only present data, but also ensure quantity. We want to do it in a more transparent manner,” says Pravin Srivastava, Secretary, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), and Chief Statistician of India (CSI). Another in-service ISS officer says, “Our work is just not restricted to one ministry — MoSPI — but to other key ministries and State governments as well.”

Need to increase cadre strength

Agreed that collection of statistical information is not easy and then to disseminate it in a timely, reliable, and adequate manner is even tougher. But, does the government not outsource collection of data? Is there really a need to increase the cadre strength?

Srivastava, who had also worked in the National Statistical Commission Secretariat also known as the Rangarajan Commission that was set up to lay down the base of the modern statistical system, feels that “the requirement is for not less than 2,000 ISS officers, as the demand is growing at various levels, and due to the earlier lower level of recruitments there is a vacuum that has increased.”

However, he says that intensive capacity-building on contemporary methods and cutting-edge technology has already begun for the statistical personnel.

“Yes, we do outsource data collection activity, but when doing so, we have to ensure that the quality of the data is not compromised. For example, for the Economic Census, we are using Common Service Centres to recruit and deploy locally to collect the data at the local level. This actually works two ways — it creates better access to information as locals are used and also makes the locals feel that they contribute to governance and nation building,” Srivastava says.

The Rangarajan Commission had suggested some significant reforms in the service. It had recommended the creation of a permanent and statutory body, National Commission on Statistics (NCS), that is independent of Indian polity.

The MoSPI has two important wings — the Central Statistical Office and the National Sample Survey Office. Following the recommendation of the Commission, NCS was created as an autonomous body in 2006 to function as a nodal agency for core statistical activities, including monitoring and enforcement of statistical priorities and setting standards and also to ensure statistical co-ordination among the different agencies.

It has five members, including a Chairperson. The CSI is the secretary of the Commission. He is also the Secretary to the Ministry. The CEO of the NITI Aayog is an ex-officio member of Commission, at present. Critics say that the recommendations of the Rangarajan Commission have not been fully implemented, especially the bit about taking data away from political influence. Pronab Sen, who was the first CSI, and also Secretary of MoSPI (2007-2010), says, “It is important to keep data independent of politics. This service, by its nature, is independent. There is involvement of States also in the process of data collection.”

The CSI does the most important data generation in the country — the estimation of the gross domestic production and retail inflation. And therefore it is most important that the entity remains independent.

N R Bhanumurthy, Professor, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, says, “My view is that there is an urgent need for an independent NCS that has statutory status. The data should be apolitical.” While the debate continues on the independence of the body, the officers themselves expect that in the fourth cadre review in 2020, the government will grant some secretary-level posts to the service, and increase the number of posts at higher administrative grades (HAG) and HAG-plus level. The Association has also requested the Department of Personnel and Training to amend the recruitment rules to relax residency clauses that will help tackle the problem of vacuum at director level.

On more number of apex-level posts for the ISS, experts say this is a perennial problem with all the services. However, the ISS officers argue that compared to Indian Economic Survey, which has cadre strength of 518 and has five apex-level posts, ISS has no apex-level posts despite cadre strength of 814. A demand is also there that the post of CSI-cum-Secretary, MoSPI, should be encadred to ISS.

While it is late in the day to merge the Indian Economic Service and Indian Statistical Services, as is the mechanism in some States that have a Bureau of Economics and Statistics, a need definitely is felt to restructure the system to make it more responsive to the digital age.

Published on August 01, 2019
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