A data battle is exciting news for us, almost like what breaking news is like to many others. We’ve been closely tracking the 'Curious Case Of West Bengal’s Missing Numbers' for a few months now. The case is getting more interesting, almost mysterious, as the results of a Right To Information (RTI) petition filed by SPR Research Fellow Sourjya Bhowmick with the Ministry of Finance show.
A few weeks ago, we reported on a war between West Bengal’s finance minister Amit Mitra and his predecessor Asim Dasgupta. The controversy erupted when newly anointed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reportedly said in Delhi, “Out of 1 rupee, 94 paise are spent on salary and other responsibilities of the state. Only 6 paise are left for development. How will we do with such little money? Mr Dasgupta and Mr Mitra then began quarreling on how much money the state actually had as surplus after accounting for its expenditure. More on that report here.
But like we said, this battle only swung the spotlight again on the fundamental issue of data availability. Earlier we pointed out how, while poring over the “Indian Public Finance Statistics” report, compiled by Dr Kaushik Basu, Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, we found that West Bengal's net state domestic product for the fiscal years 2004-2005 till this report was published was missing. The report only had West Bengal figures from 2001-02 to 2003-04 and nothing after. The same is the case with per capita net state domestic product, at constant as well as current prices.
Source: Directorates of Economics & Statistics of respective state Governments
So SPR filed a Right To Information (RTI) petition last month seeking details on the missing data from the Ministry of Finance, Department of Economic Affairs. We got a written response a few days ago which says, “The aforesaid data were not available from the Central Statistical Office when the compilation of data for the publication was done”.
But, Mr Basu’s report mentions the “Directorate of Economics and Statistics of various state governments” as its source. While the RTI response says they failed to get the figures from Central Statistical Organisation, which falls under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.
We couldn’t find the data in websites linked to the West Bengal Government like the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, Bureau of Economics and Statistics. None of them provide any details, except to point to percentage growth achieved. Even reports that are available on the Bengal Bureau of Economics website stop in 2005-06. It’s almost as if data collection after this period ground to a halt.
ISPR Foundation also spoke to the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Economics and Statistics, Government of West Bengal. He seemed surprised to hear about the ‘missing data’ and clarified that no such data was even asked for and that these figures are presented in the annual budget annually. He agreed that there are ‘infrastructural issues’ that makes the data unavailable in public domain.
Interestingly, we accessed the figures from the website of the Central Statistical Organisation and they are all available for public viewing, even includes a sector wise break up.
In the India Public Finances report, GDP figures for smaller states like Manipur, Nagaland are also missing with State GDP figures for the latter not available for the last two fiscal years. In the case of Manipur, no data has been available since 2004-2005.
The Case Of The Missing Numbers does not suggest that funds are missing or have disappeared. Just that fairly important headline data is not reconciled effectively or not accessible, which could lead to its own set of problems. Like the war of the two finance ministers.