CES revamp to make it difficult to compare with past surveys

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The National Statistical Commission, the country’s apex statistical body, has expressed concerns over the implications of the changes proposed by the expert group, multiple people aware of the matter said.

One of the key proposals by the committee is that the survey should be conducted in three visits to each household instead of one to get better responses.

This is because the questionnaire, which was already long, is set to get further stretched as some questions on the government’s free foodgrain and healthcare programmes have been added.

The expert committee, headed by former chief statistician Pronab Sen, was set up by the Centre after the controversial decision in late 2019 to junk the report of the previous survey held in 2017-18.

The government had earlier said the survey had issues with data quality, but several experts have questioned the claim and attributed the decision to adverse findings.

The survey is crucial as it forms the basis of poverty estimation in the country, along with revision in the base years of the Consumer Price Index and gross domestic product (GDP). The latest official estimates date back to 2011-12.

“Earlier, households were visited once to canvas the whole questionnaire, which used to take 2.5-3 hours, leading to respondent fatigue and decline in the quality of data,” Sen said in an interview.

However, if the survey is conducted as proposed currently, the data will not be comparable to previous versions of the survey and, “the old poverty line no longer remains valid as data will not be comparable” to previous versions of the survey, Sen said. “Then the poverty line needs to be reconsidered,” he added.

The NSC’s broad recommendation has been to cut down the canvassing time to improve data quality, and following the recommendations of the Sen committee, the commission has also suggested that steps be taken to make data comparable, a person aware of the NSC’s deliberations said on the condition of anonymity.

“The new method can stay, but parallelly a sub-sample survey should be conducted as per the old procedure so that a time-series can be built,” the person added.

The NSC operates autonomously under the ministry of statistics and programme implementation and has a mandate to “evolve policies, priorities and standards in statistical matters”.

Sen said his working committee group is likely to hold a meeting on 20 June to discuss the NSC’s concerns.

In November 2019, Business Standard reported, citing a leaked copy of the 2017-18 survey report, that rural consumption had declined since the previous survey in 2011-12.

This would be the first decline in consumption in over four decades and implied an increase in poverty. However, days after the leak, the government cited issues such as the divergence between consumption estimates by the survey and those captured in the GDP data.

There were also concerns that the decline may have been due to several welfare programmes such as free foodgrain distribution, which may not be getting captured properly in the survey.

However, experts argued that these issues had always existed but never before had the survey been suppressed, which could be an attempt to bury inconvenient data.

A recent working paper written by Surjit Bhalla, Karan Bhasin and Arvind Virmani claimed that extreme poverty in India was as low as 0.8% in 2019 and remained unchanged in 2020, the first pandemic year, due to in-kind food subsidies by the government.

Experts are also wary of the significant changes in the upcoming survey.

“Every survey undergoes some improvements, but CES has been stabilized since 1999,” a member of the standing committee on economic statistics said on the condition of anonymity.

Referring to the inclusion of questions on foodgrain and healthcare subsidies, the member said: “The survey itself cannot be changed to suit the purposes of the current government.”

R. Nagaraj, an economist and visiting faculty at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, said the National Sample Survey Office, which conducts the surveys, was not expected to allow the problem of incomparability to crop up.

“Statisticians involved in designing and redesigning questionnaires are usually aware of the problem,” he said. “Hence, they would ensure comparability of all major questions in the questionnaire with the earlier questionnaires.”

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