Avik Sarkar in conversation with Bhimasankaram Pochiraju
Avik Sarkar, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) at NITI Aayog, and in-charge of the NITI Aayog Data Analytics Cell visited the Applied Statistics and Computing Lab at ISB in March 2018. Below are excerpts of his conversation with the Late Professor Bhimasankaram Pochiraju, Clinical Professor and Executive Director of the ASCL.
Data is critical for the NITI Aayog. What sources do you use?
Avik Sarkar: Data has always been a primary tool for policy making in India. Professor Prasanta Mahalanobis started the Indian Statistical Institute to address the nation’s data needs in the year 1959. The Planning Commission was initially established for policy making and has been heavily dependent upon data fundamentals.
We have been doing surveys for the last 70 years. Now India needs to use more technology interventions in the survey methodology. For instance, most of the National Sample Surveys are done at five-year intervals and have a lag time of four years. If we started a survey in 2011, we would complete it by 2013 or 2014. Then we would spend one year validating the data. After analysis and report writing, it would take till 2015 to release the data for 2011. The efficient use of technology can remove this lag.
In the current system, NITI Aayog gives recommendations to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) and the National Statistical Commission (NSC) on the use of technology and geo-tagging. Often, the surveyor does not need to go to the houses. You can actually store geo-based location information.
In 2018, we cannot rely only on survey data collected through traditional methods. We need to use new data techniques. Otherwise, we will be giving back-dated policy advice to the country. Going forward, we are using a lot more operational data collected by ministries and augmenting that with other data forms. Augmentation with phone and online surveys could reduce the survey duration, leading to quicker survey outcomes.
Since NITI Aayog was formed, we have chosen key focus areas like infrastructure, education, and healthcare. Typically, the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) comes at a 10 year interval. We are trying to do a yearly ranking and indexing of those states – maybe not on 150 parameters like the NFHS does, but rather on a few core outcome parameters for the states. We are working independently with our partner organisations because we understand that we cannot wait for ten years.
We are also working a lot on the 115 aspirational districts that we have identified. These are some of the backward districts that need the most improvement. We have now devised a programme that will be monitoring them for three years on a monthly basis. Monthly monitoring is a mammoth task but it will lead to improvements in these 115 districts.
The National Sample Surveys are done at five-year intervals and have a lag time of four years. If we started a survey in 2011, we would complete it by 2013 or 2014. After analysis and report writing, it would take till 2015 to release the data for 2011.
We are engaging two parties to do the survey so that there is no bias. And we are also augmenting that with satellite data on development parameters, which we can get in real time without spending much money. So, we are using a mix of technology and ground surveys to expedite the process of getting data, because we want to get data as it happens.
What has NITI Aayog done to conduct more comprehensive data analyses for both the Centre and states so that they can achieve their goals?
The Centre can give some monetary support to the states, but how efficiently the states spend that money is entirely up to them. One idea is to shift from cooperative federalism to competitive federalism. We are ranking states on major parameters, which include healthcare, education, water management, digital transformation, sustainable development goals (SDGs) and innovation.
We are collecting key data through published data sources and from the states for an on-the-ground ranking of the states through our partner agencies. This is the first level of descriptive analytics in any corporate establishment too. We are using a weighted scorecard methodology to rank all the states on these various aspects.
Next, we are putting data in the public domain so that the states themselves see how they are ranked compared to their neighbours and how they are doing relative to the rest of India. The data is being taken up by the media. That creates a ‘name and shame’ mechanism.
The Ease of Doing Business ranking was released three or four years ago by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). NITI Aayog’s measurement, in this case, is driving the whole debate.
Local newspapers ask the states: why is your education ranking falling when you have so many good students?
The Ease of Doing Business ranking was released three or four years ago by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). The states are taking this ranking very seriously. It has become the prime measure by which foreign governments channel FDI. This ranking has become central to how state elections are run and how the whole ecosystem is governed. The citizens in those states are demanding services. NITI Aayog’s measurement, in this case, is driving the whole debate. It is a simple analytics activity that we are putting in the public domain. But the very fact that this is being done in the public domain provides much-needed data for shaping discussion and deliberation.
Healthcare measurement is difficult in a vast country like India. We have primary healthcare centres, small hospitals, nursing homes and big hospitals – both private and public. How do we capture the success of healthcare in metrics?
We have multiple interventions for the healthcare sector. NITI Aayog has the role of monitoring the Kuposhan Mukt Bharat under the National Nutrition Mission. The goal is to have no children below five who are stunted, wasted, or underweight. We evaluate districts on three parameters on a real-time basis and on a yearly basis.
Now, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (HFW) provides vaccinations, but the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) provides mothers with information about their children’s vaccinations. At the ground level, we have the Asha worker from the HFW Ministry and the Anganwadi worker from the WCD Ministry. So, there is a coordination issue.
In addition, pregnant women and children below five years are eligible for food supplements and meals. This is again done by the WCD Ministry. Wherever there is multi-ministerial involvement, NITI Aayog has to perform the technical role of monitoring the programme to see whether things are happening or not.
We are also looking at district-level hospitals. Each district has a district centre and a district hospital. We are now moving from ranking the states to ranking all 700+ district hospitals. It is not a first or second type of ranking. We rank them into ranges. So again, we are studying ranking and indexing methodologies. This ranking will look into all aspects of healthcare, such as the quality of delivery and then compare each dimension with other players.
We are trying to measure everything that we are doing at NITI Aayog because measuring change becomes very important. Since last year, where have you moved? Have you moved up or down?
How have you been able to achieve a level of coordination with government departments and non-governmental organisations?
There is a plan. The 115 aspirational districts are at the bottom of a combination of factors like health, education etc. So, we had a meeting with the 115 districts, involving district officers, prabhari officers, senior officers from the Central ministry and also NGOs. From our brainstorming session, we had to identify the areas in which they are strong and the roles that they can play. NGOs are often localised. Along with civil society organisations, they will be very important in the last-mile delivery of services in these 115 aspirational districts.
Agriculture is a backbone of the country. Do you have data for how farmers can sell directly to the customer and how to help them get the best price for their products?
Price is one aspect. We already have the e-NAM, the National Agriculture Market. E-NAM is an online tool and app available in all vegetable and agriculture mandis across India. It moves the process from selling produce in the mandi independently to selling it through the app. It ensures that the transaction occurs in the proper manner. That is on the price side. Price determination is left to the market. But we have a tool in place. Say, I am doing a transaction with you independently in a closed corner. We could fool each other. But if it goes through an app where it is recorded completely, then we know that an inspection can happen at some point in time. Everything gets logged. There is more trust in the process because the government manages the e-NAM process. So, farmers are likely to get the proper price there.
On the other end, the yield in agriculture per hectare of land is lower in India compared to a lot of other countries. Some corporates have used artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics to inform farmers about the right sowing time, or a sowing window based on the soil conditions. We work with agriculture scientists on AI-based predictive models to take account of important aspects such as past yield at the district level.
We already have the soil information, which is crucial because across India, we have 10 to 12 different soil textures and each soil has a different rate at which it can retain water. Some textures, like sand, do not retain water for even an hour. Others, like clay, retain water for much longer. Depending on the texture, we can do the modelling and predict how long the water will be retained.
Then we can predict the weather. Based on all this information, we want to be able to advise farmers so that they can sow the crop and apply the fertiliser at the right time and date to maximise the yield. After they sow the crop, we use satellite technology to monitor the crops and check whether patches of land are disease-infected. If areas are disease-infected, we inform the farmer, so that they can intervene and apply pesticides. This has been piloted in about 15 aspirational districts across India.
Does the internet of things (IoT) also play a role in this process?
IoT will play a role but you need to have IoT installed. It becomes expensive to start with. Drones also have a role to play because when you look at satellite imagery, you can get only 55×55 metre or 23×23 metre resolution. When you look at drones, you can get a much more minute level. But you cannot scale with IoT because you have to plant the devices in certain places. We are trying to do it with satellite imagery and other historical data for analytics. But we plan to bring in IoT and drones as the next step, based on cost-benefit analyses.
Swachh Bharat has been a major movement introduced by the Prime Minister. Some evaluation of such programmes would be needed to go to the next level. Are there any such plans?
We have already done a Swachh Survekshan survey of municipal bodies. It had two parts. The first half was the municipality’s own responses. The second part was the Ministry’s citizen perception survey. These two were weighted and ranked. The survey has been conducted for the last two years, with yearly reports.
What are some infrastructure projects or activities that are being undertaken at the moment? Is there some evaluation of these projects?
The government is investing heavily in infrastructure. Building roads, making ports more competitive, and doubling of railway lines – many initiatives are ongoing on that front. These are being monitored on a regular basis by the Prime Minister’s office. NITI Aayog’s Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office (DMEO) is in charge of getting updates on the various infrastructure projects from the line ministries. Ministries have measurable targets for these projects – how many kilometres have been built, how many villages have been electrified? Those targets are monitored on a quarterly basis using the Pragati Dashboard.
We are also looking at district-level hospitals. Each district has a district centre and a district hospital. We are now moving from ranking the states to ranking all 700+ district hospitals.
NITI Aayog is also working on women’s empowerment. What are the various initiatives on that front? What are the metrics that you use to measure success?
When we say that India has a demographic dividend, it also includes the female labour force, the women who are not able to work. Women’s empowerment involves removing the barriers to women’s work.
We see women playing a big role as entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is the need of the country because we need job creators rather than job seekers. On 8 March 2018, NITI Aayog launched a Women Entrepreneurship Platform (WEP). This is a follow-up to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit that happened in November 2017 in Hyderabad with Prime Minister Modi and Ivanka Trump.
The Women Entrepreneurship Platform will not give any funds to women. If a woman wants to start a business, there are various legal and structural barriers. You need help from a legal expert, chartered accountant, information about skilling, information about loans. The WEP is a common platform where we are bringing all these players together. You can get all information and services in one place. The WEP will connect entrepreneurs to the help they need based on the stage of the incubation/business.
Then we also have the microfinance organisation, the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY). There are three types of Mudra loans – Tarun, Kishor and Shishu—ranging from Rs 5000 to Rs 50,000; from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakhs and more than Rs 5 lakhs. These loans are primarily given to women entrepreneurs to start businesses in rural areas. And the microfinance sector is also very heavily focused on the women entrepreneurs per se.
There is more trust in the process because the government manages the e-NAM process. So, farmers are likely to get the proper price there.
Thank you, Dr Sarkar. You have given us much insight about what the NITI Aayog is doing and plans to do.
Late Professor Bhimasankaram Pochiraju, Executive Director of the Applied Statistics and Computing Lab (ASCL) and the Faculty Director for the Certificate programme in Business Analytics, passed away passed away on 1 April 2018. A tribute is here.