Notwithstanding the claim of every ruling party politician that India is progressing, the facts including grass root data of the government are contrary. A recent news report has referred to a survey conducted by the National Statistical Survey revealing that the average monthly spending by an individual fell by 3.7 per cent in 2017-18 as compared to 2011-12.
Apparently, the spending fell by 8.8 per cent in villages and rose by a mere 2 per cent over six years in cities. The survey was reportedly conducted between July 2017 and June 2018. Soon after, the government informed Parliament that its findings, which would form the basis for calculation of absolute poverty, would be released in June 2019. This led to an uproar as government acceptance would imply that all plans and programmes to uplift the conditions of the rural populace have possibly not yielded the desired results.
The Business Standard report quoted experts as saying the data suggested that poverty levels had gone up substantially. The experts observed the most worrying trend for the first time in decades was a dip in food consumption. The government stated that it noted a “significant increase in the divergence in not only the levels in the consumption pattern but also the direction of the change when compared to the other administrative data sources like the actual production of goods and services”. However, fearing a backlash, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation stated that in view of data quality issues, it decided not to release the Consumer Expenditure Survey results of 2017-2018.
Additionally, a few days back the National Statistical Office (NSO) showed that growth in the second quarter of the current fiscal had shrunk to an over six year low of 4.5 per cent – the slowest expansion in 26 quarters. The sharp slowdown was triggered by contraction in the manufacturing sector and a deceleration in agriculture, services and construction as well as utilities, including electricity generation. The NSO number turned out to be worse than the median estimate of 4.7 that a Reuter’s poll of economists revealed.
Meanwhile, over 200 leading academics have recently accused the Modi government of acting against ‘national interests’ by disregarding an all-India survey on household consumption expenditure, crucial for monitoring poverty and inequality and also of critical value for national income accounting, and for updating macro-economic data such as price indices. In a statement issued on November 21, the academics demanded immediate release of the results of the 2017-18 Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office. The fact that data on supply of goods and household consumption is diverging, there is need for questioning the supply side data (being already widely questioned within and outside India) as much as it points to the continuing need for improving survey methods.
“The government has chosen to attack the credibility of this pre-eminent statistical institution simply because the results of the surveys do not accord with its own narrative”, the statement said. It noted that the results of the Periodic Labour Force Survey were not released until after the General election, despite the resignation of two members of the National Statistical Commission in protest against the delay. That survey had found that unemployment was at a 45 year high. Results of other surveys, including those on drinking water, sanitation and housing conditions too have not been released.
Moreover, results of other surveys including the 75th round (Consumer Expenditure), 76th round (Drinking water, sanitation, hygiene, and Housing conditions) and more recent quarterly data of the PLFS surveys, have not been released
Though a section of experts feel that if other consumption indicators such as PDS procurement and off take, consumption of oil, electricity and air transportation are considered, a general trend is observed of increase in consumption that is quite contrary to the NSO survey’s so-called findings. Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, off take of rice and wheat increased by 7.2 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively, while total off take went up by 5.1 per cent. On the basis of the above, the reported NSSO findings about food consumption seem to be contradictory to actual trend of off take. Figures of the number of air passengers increasing by 95 per cent, oil consumption in barrels by 37.2 per cent, electricity consumption by 43.9 per cent, and mobile users by 44.3 per cent have been furnished by them.
But while some figures do not apply to the rural population, others may not be applicable to the poor and the impoverished as also the economically weaker sections. Recall, the recently released latest World Hunger Report bears testimony to the consumption survey report which stirred a controversy and thus there is no reason to doubt figures of the NSSO, which were carried out by statisticians from grass-root data in rural parts of the country. Plus, one should not question the surveys’ methodology as these are scientific and technical in nature, “devoted to trying to improve the system to enable better measures of crucial indicators”.
The situation may be worse now in the backdrop of the overall economic slowdown, unemployment and underemployment, acute farm distress and conditions of labour losing jobs both in informal and formal sectors. Unfortunately, the present authoritarian regime is unwilling to accept anything that goes against it, despite massive protests across the board. The NDA government seems unfettered and only interested in expanding its political regime and preaching political ideology, which goes against the traditional socio-religious ethos of the country.
Coming to the question of inequality, it must be stated that due to policies adopted by successive governments in the country, it is ever-widening, whether of the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent or even the average incomes of urban areas and that of the villages. Though incomes and consumption expenditure of big farmers may have increased, as per statistical data, that of the sharecroppers and even very small farmers have been on the decline. Moreover, during distress conditions like droughts or floods, which are more or less an annual feature, this section is greatly affected as their hutments are blown away and work comes to a standstill.
It goes without saying the situation presently is indeed quite alarming. The government may suppress data but this will not yield any different results unless there is drastic shift in our planning strategy and allocation of resources to areas from where the majority benefit. However, as things stand today and given the mindset of our politicians, there is little possibility of the government making a shift in development policy.