Governance
On the 125th birth anniversary of India's master statistician, PC Mahalanobis, it is important to see how far we have come, how far we have to go - and how to measure it.
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June 29 marks the 125th birth anniversary of a towering Indian intellectual, statistician and scientist, PC Mahalanobis. His contributions include the Mahalanobis Distance in statistics, the introduction of pilot surveys for large-scale studies, the founding of the Indian Statistical Institute, and he is known for his contributions towards India's socio-economic growth through the Second Five Year Plan.

His birthday is observed in India as National Statistics Day by the government, with this year's theme being ‘Quality Assurance in Official Statistics’. A fitting tribute to his legacy would be to foster data-based decision making in the government – at the Centre, in the states, and in the local bodies.

Indian statistics and its challenges

Government policies impact the entire population. Uninformed decisions could have disastrous consequences at scale. Good decision-making requires the collection and processing of large amounts of data.

The mechanism for obtaining information on primary education enrollment, infant mortality, cost of living and other official statistics is collectively known as the Indian Statistical System. It is a complex, decentralized network of government organisations collecting data at different levels. The system is decentralized both laterally (by department, eg., agriculture, health) and vertically (Central, state or district level).

The apex body is within the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. It is concerned with the collation of all the statistics of the country, and examines them for quality, accuracy and timeliness. There is also a nodal statistics agency in each state, which performs the same function at that level. Information flows both horizontally and vertically in this network, and generally from the states to the Centre.

There are significant challenges that occur in this setup. Much of the statistical work in the country is performed by non-professionals who are not part of a trained statistical cadre. The government also outsources work due to shortage of human resources. The quality  and credibility of data are therefore impacted.

Systemic deficiencies, including gaps in available information, delay in the publication of results, discrepancies and a lack of transparency in the process further undermine public trust in official statistics.

Good statistics are essential for sustainable development

These are some of the challenges identified in the government's 2018 Draft National Policy on Official Statistics, which incorporates the UN's Fundamental Principles on Official Statistics.

Formulated in 1994, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2014 and by the Indian Cabinet in 2016, the Principles are a milestone in the history of statistics. They identify official statistics as public goods that play an indispensable role in a democratic society. The Principles are of "significance for all societies who aspire to shape their own fates in an informed manner.” They stress that statistics must be collected in an ethical, independent and scientific manner, and that citizens' entitlement to public information must be honoured.

All this assumes great importance in the context of sustainable development, which can be defined as "meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The global agenda for sustainable development and the eradication of poverty is enshrined in the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are 17 interlinked SDGs – for instance, Good Health and Well-being (SDG 3); and Climate Action (SDG 13). Each SDG comes with its own specific targets and indicators. For example, SDG 3.8 calls for the achievement of universal health coverage, including access to medication, healthcare and insurance. Progress on this is measured based on "tracer interventions" among the general and disadvantaged populations in a country.

Many data systems do not even exist or are not equipped to track the indicator as currently framed. The SDGs, therefore, present an unprecedented level of complexity when it comes to the standardized measurement of development progress, with 230 individual indicators to monitor the 169 targets across 17 goals.

Data for development

The UN recognises this and has issued an urgent call for action. In "A World That Counts" (2014), the world body calls for "mobilizing the data revolution for sustainable development".

Technology, innovation and cooperation through the creation of shared data infrastructure are seen as central to monitoring SDGs. Given data's recent, massive proliferation (it is estimated that some 90% of the world's data was created in the past two years alone), there is immense scope for this.

On this National Statistics Day, and the 125th birth anniversary of India's master statistician, it is important to think of how far we have come, how far we have to go - and how to measure it. We at Public Affairs Centre focus on enabling evidence-based sustainable action, by partnering with government, non-government actors and academics alike. We believe that with coherent policies and coordinated action, data for development is within our grasp.

Views expressed are author’s own.

Hari Dilip Kumar is Programme Manager for Sustainable Development at Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru.