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.