Economic Survey has been reduced to a Ritual

Narasimha Reddy Donthi

The Economic Survey is a set of documents that gives information on the status of the Indian economy. Known as the Economic Survey Volume (ESV), it is released every year in the month of February a day before the government budget is presented in the legislature at the national and state levels. This practice started in 1950-51 and until 1964, it was released along with the Union Budget.

This document serves as a guide to understand the national economy and discuss public investments as per the situation and serves primarily as a supportive document for parliamentary decision-making. However, over a period of time, the contents and structure of the ESV have undergone a change. 

Contents in the ESV are based on responses from various departments and official publications. There are two volumes, in Volume I, economic analysis is given, while Volume II reviews developments in the major sectors of the economy. 

Now, instead of providing evidence-based economic analyses, ESV has become a document that generates evidence for economic policies that are not linked to ground realities. The presentation of unbiased challenges of policymaking and tools has become a mirage, as effective economic policymaking is narrowed down to deregulation.

Statistics, the mainstay of ESV

With data manipulations, gaps, and biased presentations, the survey has become a manifesto of continued reforms towards liberalization. Additionally, with the Five-year Plan process stalled as the Planning Commission transitioned into NITI Aayog, there is no alternative reference document for public education on national economic policies. 

The role of Chief Economic Advisor (CEA), in the form of ESV, is spilling into the domain of NITI Aayog. 

ESV seems to be transitioning into a planning and policy document rather than a document that informs people on economic status. If it is so, ESV needs to go through a consultative process that was enunciated for the development of Five-Year Plans.

Statistics was always the mainstay of ESV. However, with the growth in the economy, reporting on the economic situation became much wider. 

ESV usually reports on macro fundamentals of the Indian economy, including GDP, industrial and agricultural production, per capita income, exports, imports, money supply, wholesale price changes, etc, across eight sectors. Within these macroeconomic trends and sectoral changes, a few parameters that are used to report progress, growth, or deceleration have been changing.

When the ESV was almost an addendum for more sanctimonious national budget volumes, the gap between the two exercises that reflect policy-making and decision-making gradually began to widen. And so, the direction of the specific National Budget has not been based on the problems highlighted in the corresponding ESV.

Use of economic theories and postulations

The Economic Survey has also been seen as a cut-and-dry document, which has not enthused the Members of Parliament enough to go through it. Very few MPs, it seems, read this document. If they did, probably the quality of discussion on the Budget would be vastly improved. 

From 2017-18 onwards, ESV became a technical document, using economic theories and postulations. This is probably an effort to hide rather than report on the status. It says, “This year’s Survey is different incoming in just one volume. The detailed review of the year gone by that was covered by the companion volume will now appear later in the year as a standalone document.” ESVs in recent years, in general, contain more graphs than data tables.

No more does it continue on the earlier endeavor to connect the common man with economics. It is important to note that economics alone cannot decide the direction of democracy, development, and national growth. Public policymaking requires clarity of objectives, as there are inherent trade-offs in the various macro-economic policy choices.

Former CEA Arvind Subramanian has quietly changed the way the Economic Survey Report is being presented. He asks, “How can the Survey consistently maintain a freshness of approach, the rigor of analysis, the relevance of material, and novelty of ideas?” To avoid the risk of being jaded, the CEA presents Volume I, focusing largely on more long-term challenges; specifically gender inequality, climate change and agriculture, delays in the appeals and judicial process, and science and technology. 

Instead of reporting on the basics of the Indian economy, ESV has become a document to throw ideas that respond to those of the ruling clique.

Even though it has become a research paper, experimenting with the amalgamation of Big data, ESV is not peer-reviewed or consulted. Of course, transformed ESV acknowledges a lot of names, which may not have reviewed as rigorously as an academic paper, given the time constraints. Economic Surveys from 2017 onwards have become a document with a number of prescriptions than the Budget and economic policy of India can have. Alarmingly, it has become a document of an individual–the Chief Economic Advisor–and not an institution.

It also has confusions and contradictions. The former CEA opines that effective policymaking has an integral role in economic growth and is based on the continuation of reforms. When numbers are not supportive enough, ‘international’ comparison is done, sometimes with a contradiction.

No longer status report on economy

ESV 2018-19 presents itself as representative of sky blue thinking, explained as an idea of complementary inter-linkages between the macroeconomic variables (economic growth, demand, exports, and job creation) using the pictorial description of several inter-linked gears. 

ESV 2020-21 uses a lot of verbose languages to amplify the so-called ‘policy insights and implementation at the Union, state and local level converged to initiate a V-shaped economic recovery. Even though ESV 2020-21 castigates the pandemic of inducing lives vs. livelihoods, there is no reference to the macroeconomic variables of demand, job creation, exports, and economic growth. 

There is not much information on the unemployment impacts of the pandemic. In fact, it goes on to mention that lockdowns are effective in reducing unemployment while referring to an academic paper published almost a century back in 1918 on the Spanish flu pandemic.

ESVs are no longer status reports on the economy but have become a space to generate data and information that justifies privatization, liberalization, and globalization. It is trying to mimic an economic planning document. 

Ultimately, since it is not referred to by the government to set the economic policy path, and by Members of Parliament to discuss budget flows, ESVs have been reduced to a ritual. Probably, recognizing this vulnerability, the CEA tries to spice up the ESV documents by adding quotations, references from international economic academic papers, concepts such as sky blue thinking, and adding to the number of pages by including government circulars, orders, and notifications.

This article first appeared in the TheNewsMinute titled: Economic Survey has been reduced to a ritual on July 11, 2021.

About the Author


Dr. Narasimha Reddy Donthi is a public policy expert based in Hyderabad.



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