A (Failed) Quest to Obtain India's Missing Jobs Data

Repeated RTIs have revealed that Labour Bureau's report on employment-unemployment data is supposedly ready and was to be released in 2018. Why then is the BJP continuing its deafening silence on the matter?

Repeated RTIs have revealed that Labour Bureau’s report on employment-unemployment data is supposedly ready and was to be released in 2018. Why then is the BJP continuing its deafening silence on the matter?

On January 31, Business Standard reported on the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) unemployment data – which the BJP-led government has not released. The figures quoted are highly unflattering. The country’s unemployment rate has risen to 6.1%, making it the worst in the last 45 years.

What is more is that these numbers are on the conservative side, given that no data on unemployment has even been collected since demonetisation. The alarming unemployment levels potentially explain the futility of our various attempts – outlined below – at obtaining data and information about its release through RTIs.

On January 28, the only two non-governmental members of India’s National Statistical Commission (NSC) resigned. Among the reasons for their departure was the government’s delay in releasing the results of the new employment survey data, despite being approved by the NSC. This is another development in our quest to procure the missing labour data.

Who collects jobs data?

Labour market data was typically collected by the NSSO’s Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS) conducted once every five years. Employment and unemployment rates, women’s labour-force participation and other labour market indicators generated from these surveys are critical inputs for policy formulation.

The most recent round of employment survey should have occurred in 2016-17, as per the five-year schedule. The survey, however, was postponed for unclear reasons. The lack of any information in the public domain on the NSSO survey prompted us to a file an RTI in May 2018 enquiring the status of these figures.

In June, the labour ministry responded saying that the 2017-18 NSSO EUS had been discontinued. In response to a question on the reasons for discontinuing the survey, the ministry responded that:

“(C)onsidering the need of labour force statistics at regular and more frequent intervals, a new regular employment-unemployment survey namely, Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) has been launched by … (NSSO) … across India in April 2017”.

The ministry’s response further claimed that PLFS data would be available by December 2018. However, the data is yet to be released.

Also read: Why the NSSO Employment Surveys Shouldn’t Have Been Done Away With

In another development, to make some data available annually, the labour ministry entrusted the Labour Bureau (LB) with the task of collecting annual employment-unemployment data from 2010 onwards. There have been five such surveys. Since the discontinuation of the NSSO’s EUS from 2011-12 – and in the absence of PLFS data – these surveys are the only recent official labour data. The latest such survey was conducted between April and December 2015.

The LB surveys have, unfortunately, neither been regular nor available. In 2014-15, these surveys did not take place for reasons unknown. And the overall process of dissemination of the LB survey data is ambiguous. Typically, the NSSO’s EUS reports are available in the public domain and the unit-level data can be acquired freely.

The LB reports prior to the 2015-16 survey are not available on the ministry website nor on any other government website, to our knowledge (they may be found at the Centre for Sustainable Employment website. Neither have the unit-level data relating to any of the LB surveys been made easily available to the public.

Till mid-2018, there was no information on the next annual survey (2016-17) of the LB. The vacuum in official labour data was apparent and perhaps, sensing the discontent, and in an attempt to address these concerns, the labour ministry issued a press release dated June 11, 2018. It stated that the “field work of Sixth Annual Employment Unemployment Survey (2016-17) has been completed and data entry validation work is in progress. The report pertaining to 6th Annual EUS is to be completed by September, 2018”.

On the basis of the press release, in October 2018, we filed a second RTI requesting the expected date of release of the LB’s 6th EUS report and unit-level data. In response to this RTI, the ministry stated that the report was being finalised and was “likely to be released shortly”, with no mention of the expected date of release. Subsequently, we filed a third RTI to obtain the details of the expert committee and minutes of the meeting.

Also read: Unemployment After Demonetisation, GST Was Even More Than 6.1%: Report

The ministry then responded saying that the expert group meeting on 6th LB EUS under the chairmanship of professor S.P. Mukherjee held on September 27, 2018, had, “approved the … report with minor additions/deletions…”. The committee recommended that subsequent to the labour ministry’s approval, the executive summary would be released.

due to a lack of statistics on employment and unemployment, several sources are being explored in order to get an idea of the current scenario. Credit: Reuters

However, to this day, the LB data and reports remain elusive. The only indication that the report is perhaps ready has come in the form of an article in Business Standard dated January 11, citing numbers from the 6th LB EUS. The data and the report are supposedly ready and the RTI response claimed that it would be released in 2018. Why then is the BJP-led government continuing its deafening silence on this matter?

Caste-wise data

Besides the lack of availability, there is much else to be questioned regarding the content of the LB survey. Particularly, a question on the religion of the household, which has been asked in all NSSO EUS, has been omitted in the LB surveys. Specifically with regard to the 6th EUS, in the Expert Committee meeting – as was revealed in the response to our RTI – a decision was made to exclude caste-wise information on an individual’s work status and educational qualification.

Also read: Who is Bearing the Burden of India’s Rising Unemployment?

Instead, it was recommended that only the “overall” status be shown in the report. As the recent State of Working India report 2018 finds, caste disparities in earnings and occupations continue to pervade the Indian labour market.

Reliable labour data and reports are absolutely critical for active citizenry. The ministry’s decision to withhold caste-wise data from the recent (unreleased) EUS survey is unclear. A question in the RTI on the criteria used to select members of this ‘Expert Committee’ remained unanswered. Lack of proactive transparency in such important decisions is not only suspicious but also regressive for a democracy

Given the rapid changes in the Indian labour market, there is an urgent need to have current, accurate and publicly available data through regular, dynamic and comprehensive surveys. Indeed, this was the intention behind constituting the NITI Aayog Task Force on Improving Employment Data. The attempts by the government to “improve” labour data have actually made it worse.

The nationally representative and comprehensive EU surveys have been discontinued. These have been replaced by a less than comprehensive LB surveys, which also remain inaccessible to the public. Finally, the status of the PLFS is unknown. Moreover, any other official data has been limited in coverage (Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, Quarterly Employment Surveys) and alternative data sources such as the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy have been disparaged by officials leaving the public in an artificially created vacuum of labour data.

The most recent resignation of members of the NSC is yet another testament to the frustration about the Centre’s opacity on releasing employment data.

Rosa Abraham, Janaki Shibu and Rajendran Narayanan work at Azim Premji University. The authors thank Amit Basole for comments and suggestions. An abridged version of the article appeared in the Business Standard on January 31, 2019.