Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The year 2020, with its economic downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic affected million of lives. But how many people lost their jobs, how many families fell into poverty or how many were affected by lack of food? 

There is no reliable data to accurately measure the impact of the pandemic. The question then arises: if we do not know the scale of the problem how are we going to address it?

In fact, if one were to look for statistics on the total number of farmers in Nepal, or how many Nepalis live abroad, or how many live below the poverty line, there are wildly differing figures. Relevant government agencies themselves do not have the statistics. 

Whatever data is available is either outdated or unreliable, and are used as the basis for policy and planning despite their unreliability, which poses a risk of poor communities not benefiting from programs targeted towards them.

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The 15th plan published by the National Planning Commission states that the population living below the absolute poverty line in Nepal has dropped to 18.7%. However, this is only an estimate made from the Third Living Standards Survey published by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2011 which concluded that Nepalis earning less than Rs53 -- which is 25% of the population -- lived in poverty. No such survey has been conducted ever since.

An unpublished World Bank study found that the 2015 earthquake had increased the poverty rate by 6%, which combined with the Covid pandemic might have pushed families living just above the poverty line below the line again. The National Planning Commission (NPC) reported that 0.9 million people employed within Nepal and 0.6 million Nepalis employed overseas had lost their jobs due to the pandemic as of July 2020.

Former Agriculture Minister Ghanshyam Bhusal noted at a program recently that there was no data available regarding farmers and farming communities, and it is unclear how many farmers depend on agricultural income. As per 10-year-old government records gathered through the 2011 agricultural census, 3.83 million farming households accounted for 70% of total households in the country.

The figures however, are not telling of the actual production of paddy or other crops every year.  The Agricultural Census 2011 mentions that Nepali farming households possess 2.5 million hectares of land, out of these temporary crops are planted in 2.1 million hectares and permanent crops in 0.17 million hectares.

This data is however, incomplete as there is no information on barren agricultural land, or the decrease of agricultural land due to urban plotting in the cities. There are no updates on how many households in the country do not own land, which leaves out a whole chunk of population unaccounted for.

One of the key areas of study for Nepal would be the economic migration, as at least one in two households is estimated to have family members in foreign employment. The Economic Survey of 2019/2020 by the Finance Ministry recorded 4.8 million Nepalis had left from April 2019-February 2020 for overseas employment, but there are no records on how many of them have returned.

This leaves us with no leads as to how to gauge the situation of Nepal’s labour market. The only other survey that takes up this area is the third edition of the Nepal Labor Force Survey published by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in 2019, which was again released a after a decade of its previous edition.

The course for numbers on industrial production, consumption or household income is no different. Consumption data is collected to check market activities and the economic status of the consumer. In their absence, it becomes difficult to analyse the drop in the market due to the pandemic.

Not only are data important for long-term policymaking, but also for making important short-term decisions. The Ministry of Finance had, for instance, decided in April 2020 to provide relief to Nepal’s daily-wage working class. But there is no record of how many or who are defined as daily-wage workers, let alone of who and how many citizens received relief.

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The government had also announced exemptions and other facilities to businesses affected by the pandemic, but predictably, there is no record of who and how many businesses came under this category.

The absence of a reliable data system is the cause of hindrances in identifying potential beneficiaries and make arrangements for relief distribution. A reliable database of at-risk groups can help prevent misuse of assistance and relief in case of emergencies and disasters, while disorganised archives leave loopholes for rampant misuse of resources.

Under the government's senior citizens' social security stipend scheme, almost 3 million senior citizens currently receive the allowance. But since there is no separate record of their financial status, the allowance goes out to even those who do not need it. 

Head of the Department of Economics at Tribhuvan University, Dr Shivaraj Adhikari argues that the data reporting system is weak in the absence of periodic and regular surveys. "There is a lack of reliable data because living standards surveys, industrial surveys, agricultural censuses and surveys are not conducted regularly,” says Adhikari

A year since Nepal went under the impact of the pandemic, there are no statistics on the extent to which the economy has been affected. A committee of economists was formed under the coordination of the former Vice Chairman of the National Planning Commission Min Bahadur Shrestha to study the impact, but the report is yet to be released.

There are a host of problems in terms of quantity, quality and usefulness of data, and its impact on conducting in-depth research. To the extent that statisticians have called the quarterly GDP figures published by the CBS 'weak'. Manik Lal Shrestha, who has worked at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), says: "There is much to be done in terms of investing in data production and management, categorising data in a way that citizens can understand it.”

Last year, there were conflicting reports on paddy production, with some showing a spike and others showing a slump. CBS publishes the data of economic growth every year based on the data of agricultural production provided by the Ministry of Agriculture. Even if the data on paddy production alone is unrealistic, it threatens to undermine the overall figures.

Data discrepancies are not limited to the agriculture sector. The import-export statistics published by three government agencies, the Customs Department, Nepal Rastra Bank, and the Trade and Export Promotion Center do not match. The sectoral data of the economic survey made public by the Ministry of Finance has found to be inconsistent with data from other bodies.

Limited resources at the CBS is a hindrance for proper and efficient data collection, as a result of which various ministries have to be relied upon for regional statistics regarding education, agriculture and health. Senior Statistics Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, Ram Krishna Regmi, says: "There is a problem in the statistical system, and it is not right to formulate government policies and plan without improving the system."

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