From being world leader in economic surveys, India is now facing a serious data problem…

I was just reading this piece by Abhijit Banerjee on decline of higher quality education in India. Though it is on general education, much of is related to economics education in India.

Whereas in the 1950s and 60s good teaching jobs were scarce, and many talented people had to settle for ill-paying part-time jobs in obscure private colleges, finding competent teachers is a major problem these days, and very few places even aspire to attract world-class talent. Even prestigious institutions like the Delhi School of Economics have many unfilled slots.
It is tempting to blame the explosion of institutions. There are of course many more colleges, universities and institutes, which is why places like Presidency University (the erstwhile Presidency College) are now struggling. In 1959 they used to have the pick of the talent; now they have to compete for them against upstarts that are often able to pay much more (more about that later) and offer better working conditions.
But if you think about it, this cannot explain why the entire system is short of talent. After all, the fact that we have so many more institutions also means that we are producing vastly more graduates and each such person is a potential academic, a possible Nobel Prize winner in the making. The same factors that increased the demand for higher education should, in principle, also increase the supply of outstanding researcher-teachers? Why haven’t they?

In another article (HT: Niranjan), Prof Banerjee along with three more economists deplores the decline in statistics systems in India:

In December 1956, Zhou En Lai, the Chinese premier and, after Mao, the second mostpowerful man in China, created much consternation by refusing to leave his meeting at the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) office at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata. He was talking to Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the founder of the institute, and one of the pioneers in the field of survey methods.

Zhou was frustrated by his country’s inability to produce useable data on time. China at the time collected data in every single economic unit, which generated more data than they could process. By contrast, India, under Mahalanobis, had opted to use carefully designed random samples of the economic units to infer what was going on for the entire population, which was cheaper and quicker.

In the 1940s, even before India became independent, the ISI had emerged as one of the great centres for the study of statistical methods. Giants of modern day statistics such as Ronald Fisher, Andrei Kolmogorov, Jerzy Neyman, Abraham Wald and Norbert Weiner spent extended periods of time at the ISI in its first three decades, collaborating with the many outstanding Indian statisticians there including Mahalanobis and CR Rao, and publishing in its home journal, Sankhya.

There is no other instance of an entirely homegrown institution in a developing country becoming a world leader in a large field of general interest.

From this to people questioning our data is a big decline:

And yet, despite our almost unquenchable thirst for national distinction, almost no one in India today knows this proud history. To most of us the acronym ISI stands for a Pakistani organisation dedicated to mischief. And if anyone has heard of Mahalanobis, it is as the inspiration behind our supposedly failed planning experiment. The consequence of our present indifference is not merely a lost opportunity to take pride. It pervades our attitude to data, both as consumers and producers of evidence.

We quibble about whether growth was 7.1% or 7.4%, ignoring the fact that our two main sources of official consumption data, the NSS and the GDP data produced by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), now tell entirely different stories.

If you believe the NSS, GDP could be just about half of what it is according to the CSO. There are occasional academic debates about which one is correct, which no one in power pays any attention to. And yet, it is almost surely true that both estimates (and their growth rates) are off by a huge margin. More worrying, this divergence has been known for nearly 50 years (though it has grown a lot).

And though we are occasionally told that the NSS is understaffed, or that no one knows where the CSO got a particular number, there is absolutely no political interest in improving things. From being the world leader in surveys, we are now one of the countries with a serious data problem while people talk about the really good data you can get in Indonesia or Brazil or even Pakistan.

The story in both economics teaching/research and economics statistics is the same…

It is all so ironical. Earlier we had economic institutions but economic development/growth was not there. Now it is opposite.


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