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While many in Tamil Nadu are proud of its social and economic achievements, here’s something Tamil Nadu can learn from Bihar: state economic survey.

Nationally, two documents present a picture of the state of the Indian economy: the Union government budget and the Economic Survey. The Union budget is not a mere financial announcement but it has many policy implications for the issues identified. It also talks about governance initiatives.

The national economic survey is compiled by a team of experts and well-trained economic service officers. The report is known for its in-depth analyses, consultations with subject experts, and documentation with statistics about trends in agricultural and industrial production, infrastructure, employment, money supply, prices, imports, exports, foreign exchange reserves, and other relevant economic factors that have a bearing on the budget. It is presented in Parliament ahead of the Union budget.

The State economic survey is an essential policy document and is valuable for various stakeholders for their resource planning, investments and employment generation, assessing the development of different districts, strategizing for left behind areas and so on.

Just like the national economic survey, many states bring out state economic survey reports prepared by economists with updated statistics. The states include Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, and Punjab. Unfortunately, Tamil Nadu doesn’t do this. Many expected the new finance minister would set a new trend by putting out the state economic survey but that hasn’t happened until the day before budget presentation.

The State economic survey is an essential policy document and is valuable for various stakeholders for their resource planning, investments and employment generation, assessing the development of different districts, growth potential assessment, assessment of sustainable development goals, strategizing for left behind areas and so on.

Even academia, think tanks and NGOs in Tamil Nadu have not taken a keen interest in these reports. Tamil Nadu was one of the first states to have a separate department for economic appraisal since 1972 but the department is yet to make a habit of putting out economic survey reports on  a regular basis.

In Tamil Nadu, the report is called Economic Appraisal prepared by the department of evaluation and applied research (DEAR). But it is not published regularly for reasons best known only the government. Tamil Nadu is one of the top regional economies and the state economic survey should be made available in line with the national economic survey.

The latest Economic Appraisal report available for Tamil Nadu is for the period 2014-15 to 2017-18. It is unfortunate to see that there is no appraisal report for the last four years (2018-19 to 2021-22). The report is a necessary tool for policymakers in planning for schemes and programmes to improve institutional governance systems.

On its website, the DEAR reports that it has completed as many as 789 evaluation studies as of 01.09.2021. But not a single report is available for public view. Taxpayer money is spent on different schemes and programme evaluation studies but the reports are not available for public scrutiny.

An author of these state surveys, Govind Bhattacharjee recently observed that “the Economic Survey of Bihar continues to be a goldmine of information. Prepared for the Government of Bihar by the Patna-based think-tank Asian Development Research Institute and now in its 14th edition (2019-20) since inception, the document has retained its objectivity despite the political pulls and pressures.”

Further, he also notes that “it must be said to the credit of successive dispensations in Bihar that they have not much interfered with the contents of this document – in fact, the only document available for understanding the economy of Bihar or to undertake any research – for their narrow political interests…Perhaps they too realise that fiddling with data is fraught with consequences that might prove disastrous even for themselves.” Tamil Nadu has to learn from Bihar.

While the quality of the Economic Appraisal report of Tamil Nadu has been a concern, it has not been taken note of even now by even celebrated economists from the state. The previous reports were typical bureaucratic, administrative reports and not analytical with the latest data assessing the real economy.

The present state Finance Minister PTR Palanivel Thiaga Rajan had announced in the Assembly last year (August 19, 2021) that he will bring out the Annual Economic Survey for the state along with the budget from the financial year 2022-23 onwards. However, it seems the government has not taken any credible steps to bring out the survey for the year 2021-22. Tamil Nadu has no dearth of economists and policy makers though. Former RBI governor and head of Madras School of Economists Dr C Rangarajan and Dr. P Duraisamy, former vice-chancellor of the University of Madras come to mind.

The finance minister has been keen to critique the Union government’s policies and moves. He has argued for more powers to states. But he may well put his own house in order in areas of transparency and governance delivery systems.

PTR has been talking about the need for structural reform in the state government which. But more groundwork, especially at the district collector level is needed to kickstart the restructuring process.

The latest national economic survey report has highlighted that Tamil Nadu is one of few top states which have performed well in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Indices. However, it would be interesting to know the district-wise index. The state economic survey would be able to assess migration patterns which is very important for workforce assessment and labour shortages across different sectors.

PTR has talked about data-centred governance so as to boost bureaucrats’ and elected representatives’ accountability and productivity. These are easy to promise but difficult to practice that too in parties like the DMK that have legacy issues at local and state levels. The state economic survey will help to create data-centered governance delivery systems.

Since the economic survey has inputs from various independent thinkers and experts it will provide an objective assessment of how the various districts in the state are performing and hence help address regional imbalances.

The finance minister has been keen to critique the Union government’s policies and moves. He has argued for more powers to states. But he may well put his own house in order in areas of transparency and governance delivery systems.

(The author is an economist and public policy expert)


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