In the realm of numbers

In science, engineering and management education, we have internalized the principle of taking decisions based on data. Even the medical practitioners have moved away from palpating, feeling, hearing our symptoms and then “shooting in the dark”, to taking decisions based on data, as diagnostic technologies have advanced. Now, everyone in all walks of life, knowingly or unknowingly, has the benefit of numbers while she makes her calls, be it in governance or in diverse subjects like sociology and energy. So, when our outgoing central banker in India said that his natural home was in the realm of ideas, it was food for thought for me. How can the economy of a country be piloted without the numbers that show the past history, current position and trend of various aspects of the economy — or was it that he was an uncomfortable incumbent in his role, given his affinity for creativity. That intriguing discussion can be perhaps saved for another day.

Unbiased Analysis and interpretation of data tells us what levers to pull, which switches to press in order to achieve the outcomes that we want to have. In this background, terms like data integrity, and data fidelity assume importance. I cannot but mention here the unseemly controversy created around the revised system of calculating our GDP Growth numbers, which have been termed as “hype” by a credible, but incredulous, section of the global intelligentsia, not to mention our outgoing central bank governor. No government in the history of India perhaps has flogged the GDP Growth numbers the way this government has done, thereby attracting serious investigation from international community. As a result, even the non-discerning Indian citizens have in the last few months, been thoroughly educated in what goes on behind these numbers, and we are now grappling with complicated terms like SNA ( UN System of National Accounts ), GDP Deflator, WPI vs CPI, Inflation Weightings, Gross Value Added, Factor Costs, SUT’s ( Supply-Use Tables )etc., etc. Would it not be simpler if the decision makers and even the commoners could receive more credible and non-controversial data ?

A premier newspaper wrote, and I quote “Transparency of data collection practices and procedures holds the key to good policymaking”. Couldn’t be more true. And there is concern all across the world on this vital aspect of data collection and reporting. Many people may have overlooked a small and innocuous news item in May this year which said that the central government in India has approved a proposal to adopt the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, and the government announcement went on to say that this will lead to professional independence, impartiality, accountability and transparency in methods of collection, compilation and dissemination of official statistics, besides ensuring international standards. Timely, wouldn’t you say ?

Surprisingly, this is not the first such initiative on data standards and integrity. In 1996, International Monetary Fund had apparently introduced something called Special Data Dissemination Standards, in short SDDS, and it will please us no end to know that our central bank, the RBI, was one of the first signatories to this standard. Truly hope that in the days, rather than in the years to come, we improve our implementation of these standards and principles; simply because, of all the decisions that get taken in a nation, the ones that determine our policies are the most important ones to touch all our lives, and influence all our futures, and we do not want these decisions to be taken on anecdotal evidences, intuitions and mindsets.

India, the country of IIT’s, the country which is today synonymous with computer programming, the country which give tech support to the bulk of the developed world, can leverage its IT prowess to make this data discipline to happen sooner than later. That will then be the real confluence of the realms of ideas and numbers.