Shades of grey in the Black Paper & White Paper

The controversy surrounding White Paper and the Black Paper on the country's economy, underlines the need for restoration of the autonomy of India’s statistical system. The truth is neither white nor black. It exists in many shades of grey.

Yogesh Vajpeyi
New Update
White Paper

Kharge and Nirmala Sitharaman

India has witnessed a polarising debate in and out of Parliament over the governance of the country during the last two decades— the 2004-2014 rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the subsequent rule of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance NDA).

In a White Paper tabled in Parliament, the ruling establishment damned its predecessor of bringing down the Indian economy to the world’s ‘fragile five’ and having brought it up to the world’s ‘top five’. 

The rejoinder from the Congress in the form of a Black Paper accused the government of failing to deliver on each of its promises.

Ironically, each side claimed to have hard data to back their narratives and accused the other of fudging figures as if the country’s statical system produced something which could be seen only as black or white.


Behind these clashing narratives lies a glaring caveat: The world’s most populous country has a serious data problem. It did its last decadal Census in 2011.

For years, India has relied on outdated surveys to quantify everything from gross domestic product to inflation. Most of its economic data is based on numbers collected more than a decade ago.

The consumer price index, which forms the basis of RBI’s monetary policy, is based on a collection of sales data for near-obsolete items like audio cassettes. There is no credible data to measure the true strength of the world’s fifth-largest economy and form a nuanced picture of its demographics and consumption habits.

India has a number of programmes for people below the poverty line but it doesn’t know the number of poor people.

In an unequal world, uncounted people are not just missing data. In a democracy, failing to enumerate the vulnerable is a method to disenfranchise them. Absence from state records means that the poor are omitted from welfare measures of the state.

The irony cannot be missed. Polemics is an essential element of a vibrant democracy. But so is an informed choice. 

Thanks to digital revolutions, India today sits on one of the largest pool of data and statistics in the world.  The flip side is that this has enabled those who have access to it to weave their conflicting data-driven narratives. 

A country’s statistical system of a country acts as its mirror. It generates accurate and timely data for the policymakers and other stakeholders to see how well a country is performing on key socioeconomic parameters such as per capita income, inflation, poverty, life expectancy, and average years of schooling.

India’s statistical system faces a major crisis, and a very tense political atmosphere could present barriers to fixing it.


A throwback to the past can shed light on what needs to be done next. Kautilya’s Arthasharta shows how data collection and analysis was considered important for governance in Ancient India. 

India’s official statistical system, as we know it today, began taking shape during the British Raj. After Independence, globally renowned statistician P. C. Mahalanobis had turned it into one of the world’s most robust.

The post-Mahalanobis saw a gradual diminishing of its autonomy. By the turn of the twentieth century, India’s statistical crisis had become too severe to be ignored. 

In early 2000, the central government appointed a high-level commission led by the former RBI chief C. Rangarajan to revamp. But its key recommendations implemented were ignored.

The half-hearted reforms initiated in the wake of the Rangarajan Commission’s report failed to address the deep-rooted crisis the system faced.


Meanwhile, the political pressures on the statistical system grew as data assumed a major role in public discourse.

Cutting across party lines, politicians started to control the statistical system and censor the release of datasets to suit their respective narratives.

This posed a threat to the autonomy and integrity of the statistical system. A weakened statistical system failed to assert its autonomy in the face of such pressures.

The past decade has seen a number of statistical controversies even as the statistical system struggled to reform itself.

Today, India’s statistical system is at cross crossroads.  Fast-tracking reforms and investment in the system is the need of the hour as India returns this year to the UN Statistical Commission after a gap of two decades.

There is a danger that the system could be the marginalized further to suppress inconvenient facts. On the other hand, the crisis also opens a window for course correction.  

If those in power, or those who aspire to be in power, realise that data deficit poses a hurdle for the nation’s inclusive development and growth, they must shun their temptation to manipulate the statistical system to suit their political narratives.

The autonomy of India’s statistical system must be restored and strengthened. The truth is neither white nor black. It exists in many shades of grey.