THE RELIABILITY OF JOBS DATA
India collects data from many places, in many different ways, using many different technologies. However, as with all data that has political ramifications, no one is happy with the current employment data. Now the Niti Aayog is hoping to get more recent data on employment by way of a ‘Periodic Labour Force Survey’, which will, it hopes, provide quicker, better—and higher—employment estimates.
While innovation in government data collection is always welcome, the problem being targeted needs to be better understood. Conventional sources of data are showing numbers that don’t agree with our expectation that economic growth will go hand in hand with employment growth. Currently available data seems to indicate that there is economic growth with no concomitant employment growth. This is also happening abroad to some extent, largely due to a technological shift towards automation, greater use of information technology and an anticipated greater use of artificial intelligence.
Can that be true of India? Probably not. How can there be economic growth but little job growth in a country where artificial intelligence and suchlike have not really become mainstream? The apparent discrepancy is being blamed on faulty employment measurement by those who like the government and the pro-big-business orientation of economic policy by those who do not.
Is the Niti Aayog wrong in asking for a new survey and questioning the effectiveness of other employment data? It is treading a dangerous path. It is easier to buy time when a new survey is announced. It takes about a year or two to put together and implement. A single survey is not much use because there is no comparable data available; the second and third survey rounds onward is when it becomes credible and useful. So, two to three years will have passed before the new employment data can be useful. In the interim, since the government itself has questioned the credibility of current data sources, those cannot be used. Policymaking during this interregnum will become principle-based or preferencebased rather than data-based. To put it another way, in the absence of data, responsibility cannot be pinned on the government, but nor can it be assigned within the government.
Let’s take the venerated NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) employment surveys, which are undertaken almost every year with a large and statistically derived sample size, besides the survey the NSSO conducts every five years, with an even larger sample size. The employment numbers there are the best we have in the country, and I would have focused on improving those organically, and using those numbers in the interim. Even if they are flawed, there are numerical techniques available to adjust for the flaws.
In addition, the CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy), with funding from the NSE (National Stock Exchange), has been conducting massive quarterly and annual allIndia surveys, which can also be used to estimate employment details. With a few tweaks there, more data on employment would have been available from a completely independent and domestic source. In the era of publicprivate partnerships, the Niti Aayog could have practised what it professes. Or could it be that the numbers are not ‘right’ in that data set either?
There are many possible reasons why employment growth is currently dampened. Technology change is one and structural shift is another. Who knows, the naysayers may even be right. Perhaps the new digital economy the West champions and India follows is not so employment-friendly. This is a dangerous possibility, and we need good quantitative monitoring and analysis to understand how to deal with it. But what will the government analyse, what areas will it identify and what solutions will it implement when it has no faith in its own data?
Since the government itself has questioned the credibility of its current employment data sources, those cannot be used now