‘The jobs report cannot be called a draft, it is final once I approve it’
P.C. Mohanan resigned as acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission (NSC) last month in protest against the government allegedly suppressing the release of the unemployment survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).
A leaked copy of the report revealed that India’s unemployment rate spiked to a 45-year high of 6.1% in 2017-18, leaving government officials scrambling to contain the fallout of its damaging content. The findings of the report are all the more crucial because the Narendra Modiled Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014 with the promise of creating 10 million jobs annually. The expose by the Business Standard newspaper also provided fodder to opposition parties just months ahead of national elections.
The government responded to the storm by terming the report a draft and, even, a fake.
In an interview, Mohanan dismissed the government’s claims, saying the report was final once the commission had cleared it. The episode has given an impression to the public that the government is trying to suppress uncomfort- able data, he added. Edited excerpts:
India’s statistics minister Sadananda Gowda told Parliament last week that reports of the unemployment rate touching 6.1% in the NSSO survey is fake. Having headed the survey, how do you react? I personally cannot agree. The NITI Aayog (a government think tank) was the first to say that it’s a draft report. Once I approve it, how is it a draft report? The NITI Aayog CEO (Amitabh Kant) gave some reason why this is not comparable, which is also misleading. When we approve a report, I am not going to give a figure which is not comparable with the other ones. Second, the concept of employment and unemployment are universally accepted. International Labour Organization prescribes the standards, we all follow it.
The government also keeps talking about collecting and processing the quarterly data from July to December 2018. Do you expect this to be
urban. In India, you don’t expect too many changes in annual employment from the quarter. We don’t give people unemployment allowance or security. And many people are employed in the government sector. So, quarter to quarter changes may not be that much and the annual data will have no relation with the quarterly. Walk us through what happened in your life since November last year, when things started getting sour between you and the government
In November, we suddenly found that the NITI Aayog was taking the lead and announcing the GDP back series data. It has never happened. All these statistical releases are done by the Central Statistical Office, ministry of statistics or the NSSO. You can’t involve an outside agency like NITI Aayog; it is a political body. World over, there is talk about independence of official statissrivastava, tics. So, we all objected, saying the process of getting an agency like NITI Aayog was not correct. And then, on this particular report, NSSO was under high pressure. NSSO was supposed to release the report in December. We have an advisory committee that contains experts in employment, experts in sampling, etc. They cleared the report on 4 December, so immediately on the 5th when we met, we thoroughly discussed it and approved it. Millions of data were processed to produce those tables. Once we officially say this is approved by NSC, it is the director general of the NSSO who releases the report. He writes and signs the preface and drafts a press release and they put it on the website. I’m told they have completed all those processes except putting it on the website. So, it is approved officially but not made available to the public. I tried asking the secretary to the department, who is also the chief statistician, Praveen why it is so, but didn’t get a satisfactory reply. I myself and another member then travelled to Delhi. He was not committed about when to release. This was the last straw.
Previously, when the ministry prepared a national policy on statistics, they did not tell us. They circulated the policy and tried to get a cabinet approval. We protested saying it is the commission not the ministry which should be bringing the policy. Under guidelines for conducting any census or survey any ministry under the government of India, the commission’s approval is required. This gives a wrong impression to the public that the government is not releasing data which are not comfortable for them.
Your resignation in protest can be viewed as political prejudice. How do you respond?
I discussed with some of my people, some of the topmost figures in the academic world, on what to do next. The options for me were very few. One option was to keep quiet and continue. I didn’t want to do that. Another was to remain in the commission and write letters of protest and all that. But that also may not have the desired effect. The government may not bother to respond to the letters for as long as they want. The last option was to resign, which I thought would be the right thing to do. I did not worry too much of the consequences, but I knew that it will be seen as a political act. It is a purposeful stand I took.
Mohanan said he didn’t wish to be quiet and continue.