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For measurements to reflect our concerns, we need to be in the process of dialogue: T C Anant

Interview with Chief Statistician, Government Of India

Dilasha Seth & Indivjal Dhasmana  |  New Delhi 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will organise a four-day World Forum, the fourth time it is doing this, in India from October 16. It is for the first time that the venue is a developing country. The theme is ‘Measuring wellbeing for development and policy making’ and the idea is to look beyond GDP to devise parameters for the post-2015 development agenda of the United Nations. The ministry of statistics and programme implementation (Mospi) is the host on OECD’s behalf. T C A Anant, secretary of Mospi and the government’s chief statistician, talks about it with Dilasha Seth & Indivjal Dhasmana. Edited excerpts:

Why is Mospi hosting a conference on behalf of OECD when India is not part of the organisation?
Statistics is not all about techniques. Official statistics is about picking from the vast lists of techniques and agreeing on a set of principles. There are lots of problems with GDP (gross domestic product) but its attractiveness is that the global community has agreed that this is the way we will measure. That agreement has value. It is a consensus which matters. This consensus is built in the United Nations through the UN Statistical Commission.

Now, we engage with OECD because it is one of the most influential voices. OECD is used by the UN Statistical Commission as an agent for lots of discussion. If we don’t participate in these discussions, by the time they formulate a view and give it to the UN, a lot of water would have flowed under the bridge. If we want our concerns to be reflected in measurements, we need to be there in the process of dialogue. India also represents the voices of the developing world. If only advanced nations are left to decide on measurements, we will have parameters difficult to be implemented or ones which do not capture our reality.

What is the need to look beyond GDP?
There is a long-running OECD project on measuring wellbeing. The theme itself arose in OECD, partly with the concern that GDP does not adequately capture the development dimension of societies. A number of parameters have been suggested. The Human Development Index, for instance, tries to bring in issues like literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy, etc. Other indices try to look at inequality in various ways, like gender disparities, etc. These are different facets of development which are not adequately captured in GDP.

Will the forum look at the happiness index?

This is something the government of Bhutan developed and has been pushing for long. Don’t go by the word alone. It is an index which includes various parameters of social existence other than GDP. There are similar exercises done in other countries which will also be presented.

With your long career as a statistician in various offices, what is your take on measuring development through ‘beyond GDP’ parameters?
Different countries have different elements which they might wish to include, based on their structure. For example, in India, one of our concerns has been that we are a very heterogeneous society in terms of language, caste, religion. We have looked at measures seeking to measure disparity — a concern much deeper in India than in other countries with a much more homogenous population structure. We have tried to look at development by social groups. There is a well documented study by Justice (Rajinder) Sachar on the status of Muslims in the country, saying development parameters in specific social groups have very different outcomes than the average. This means that for us, development means much more than simply a movement in the average, even if we look beyond GDP parameters.

What is the idea? To discard GDP or accompany it with other parameters?
You never discard GDP, because it has a huge advantage. There is a consensus around it. It reflects at one level something tangible. It measures the value of economic activity. In that sense, the GDP measures have huge robustness. They have correlated with the political clout of countries. The GDP numbers have related well with delivering certain outcomes. GDP has a long history. I don’t think anyone is seeking to displace GDP. What they are looking for is to be able to highlight that GDP does not capture everything.

How does the whole thing relate to India?
Early models of growth and development in India were somewhat simplistic. Those models looked at this correlation between GDP and other indicators and said if the correlation is strong, that means a rise in GDP will improve other parameters as well. Early modelling exercises for development, including plans, focused exclusively on providing economic growth as measured by GDP. In the 1970s itself in India, there was a recognition that economic growth was not happening fast enough but social aspirations have to be met. Besides, there a series of studies were done and this is where India’s contribution to this area becomes very important.

For example, Professor K N Raj moved to set up the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram to study Kerala state in a number of ways. The emphasis was that you could achieve improvement in health, literacy, etc, before the growth in GDP takes place. So, the causality started to be questioned.

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First Published: Mon, October 15 2012. 00:02 IST
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