The Indian Economy Blog

November 21, 2006

The Dirty Secret Of Indian Data

Filed under: Business — Naveen @ 2:01 am

While pursuing research projects in various parts of India it became clear that official data is far and away from reality. When I asked other senior researchers how they could go by such bad quality of data, they replied, “when the government is the sole maker of cars and watches all you possess is Ambassadors and HMTs.” That sums up the state of Indian data. You use them because they are the only ones in town. There is huge criticism of the lacunae in the data as adduced by Jobless growth, ha’ah! and India’s Industrial Growth Is One Part Hair Oil. I have also come across similar reports on education statistics.

The situation is not surprising given the complete lack of market-incentives in the supply-chain of data. All of them are produced, processed and disseminated by government agencies. The time has come to have less government in this “industry” and infuse competition from the private sector or independent research bodies. If we need to take a policy decision it has to be based on good data. Reservations: Let down by weak data is very contextual in this regard. An interesting aside of factual inaccuracy in policy-making is here.

Shortly afterwards, I appeared on another TV discussion on job reservations along with CPI leader D. Raja. The two of us had a short exchange before the TV recording began. Raja waved a copy of the US law under my nose and said it was outrageous that the USA had job reservations for oppressed classes in the private sector but India did not. I challenged him to show me the section saying so. He thumbed his way through the papers, and pointed to some paragraphs. I read them, and said these simply provided that no private employer could discriminate on the basis of race or religion. The text said nothing about reservations. Instead of recanting, Raja simply lost him temper and ranted about social justice.

On the other hand I am wary of the use of statistics that could be used by officials bent on supra-economic planning. Sir John Cowperthwaite often credited with the success of Hong Kong had this to say about the paucity of statistics in Hong Kong, “If I let them compute those statistics (except superficial ones), they’ll want to use them for planning.’’ It is indeed instructive reading this speech of his.

Update: Ajay Shah’s take on Public policy research in India.


  1. I am glad that you brought this out about Indian data and policy making. Sadly people still confine data to academic utilities and do not see its immense use in common policy making. With a variety of govt organizations and institutes in India it is possibe to maintain data on astonishingly different indicators in great detail. I don’t know if they actually do it. A good example of data crisis that has puzzled govt machinery in recent times is the farm crisis with officials trying to defend with different tales every single day. The govt of Maharashtra has finally consituted a survey on Vidharbha farm households to know the myths and realities of farm suicides. I would say that this situation of agrarian collapse could have been averted if the govt had been well informed and equipped with data on plight of farm households in the region.

    Similarly good data on income, employment, establishments, infrastructure, health etc. at household level and aggregate level can help track the development pace across different regions, states and across rural and urban populations. Islands of underdevelopment can be easily identified.

    Up to date demographic data, private and public sector employment, college enrollment down to caste, gender, age and religion can provide valuable insights that can help in policy making related to employment reservations and other policies to mitigate inequalities.

    Data on estimated population growth, industrial growth, automobile growth can help in planning related to new housing infrastructure, roads, water demand, hospitals, public transport etc.

    Planning in developed economies is in fact driven by estimates on various indicators rather and thus is need based and not on felt needs. The development process in India precisely lacks this sort of informed roadmap and as a result haphazard growth and lopsided development.

    Data and information also means transparency and lack of it means blindness and insulation. A perfect set up for corruption to flourish. Politicians can indulge in “popular” policy making about perceived and popular needs taking advantage of data and information road blocks. Efficiency inducing policies can often be relegated or abandoned to suit the needs of corrupt politicians or bureaucrats. Advertent or inadvertent investments in infrastructure projects that can for example be unproductive/counterproductive, environmentally disastrous could be made. Absence of data could mean absence of evidence that can save the corrupt from the clutches of law enforcement or immune to scrutiny.

    Data is central to make an informed decision or planning and is very relevant to a fast developing country like India. State and central governments in India should realize the need to invest in data banks on various indicators. The information technology sophistication that is available today can actually make things easier for govts to integrate the govt accounts if all the transactions and processes can go online.

    In the U.S. and several European countries there is a big market for data and there are numerous companies that engage in data supply and insights. From my own experience, I have seen purchases of various kinds of data by state and federal govts from private data vendors. In developed countries data is considered premium and companies invest big sums in acquiring market data and employing them in their strategic decision making. Governments employ data in formulating new policies or reforms and in planning or investments.

    Lately various data surveys undertaken by newspaper companies or that famous periodical cola chemical composition updates by CSE and the interest it has aroused in general public and govts alike is a clear demonstration of data employability in Indian context. India today has a big lacunae for data be it related to economic, health, environment and many more. We do have a national census providing survey data every decade but am not sure how adequate and encompassing it is. I visited it’s home page at only to be retold how data impoverished and insensitive we are.

    Sridhar Sankranti

    Comment by Sridhar Sankranti — November 23, 2006 @ 3:10 am

  2. [...] The Dirty Secret of Indian Data [...]

    Pingback by The Chaoszone Weblog » Quick Bits: Competitiveness, Localization, Moms — January 6, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

  3. Democracy especially Indian democracy playing with ‘fake’ number and statistics game. Whatever govt. or others say that we have to accept because we cannot cross check or get a reliable source of data. What the highest organisations doing in the name of statistics and numerical data is just changing some figure without proper source of collection of data. On the other hand, if we give the exact data to the government for e.g. how much cattle, chicken and other animals, trees etc. after taking census, some days after you witness chicken guniya, mad cow disease, caste or communal riots, biased approach etc.Sometime it is not doing by govt. but after receiving the data, some external agencies used to start their ‘progrom’ for either political mileage or for the benefit of corporate, or land invasion like SEZs or for multinational companies/ agencies etc. which is happening now in India. Even the polio eradication, I look it with suspicion that, our politician/ government/ corporate never ever interested in peoples welfare. They themselves engage only if they get benefit or some external force. I smell same conspiracy. We are compelled to suspect like this because of our experience with the governance in India.

    Comment by anirudh — March 6, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  4. Anirudh,

    Are you planning to be a journalist for an Indian news organization? I think you would be hired immediately based on the above style of writing.

    Comment by Observer — March 7, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

  5. Honestly, I didn’t do it! :P

    Comment by Anirudh Bhati — March 9, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  6. I stumbled upon this blog while searching for data on the number of students enrolled in rural colleges as compared to urban colleges. I could find some data concerning access to higher education by caste and religion but not in terms of the rural urban divide. You can very well appreciate our mind set.

    India must be among the few countries, where data published by the Central Statistical Organization requires to be first approved by the Minister first.

    Any one who has the time to go through the technical notes accompanying the National Income Accounts would soon realize what a hoax it all adds up to. Most of the estimates are based on such limited and unscientific samples. One wonders why very learned people occupying high positions in the Planning Commission, Reserve Bank of India and the Ministry of Finance wrangle over what the GDP growth actually is or should be targeted so seriously ever so often.

    In fact the biggest problem that India faces in making and fine tuning development policies is the utter lack of reliable data. We all know how much value corporates attach to MIS and ERP data. Do governments not need any such data?

    Comment by Marianan A J Jeyaseelan — May 24, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

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