"Today, Nepali music is a Rs 150 million industry." this newspaper reported) in its story on how Nepali music has come of age ("This years' hits", #131). How did this newspaper so confidently come up with that figure? What is its source? Intrigued, I called up Music Nepal, and its marketing manager admitted that his firm has no reliable figures for the whole industry. Additional calls to the owners of well-known music production houses and music-stores in town yielded no corroborating information. When asked who would be likely to know the information, almost all told me to ask Music Nepal.
In light of this, what is one to make of statements such as "Nepali music is a Rs 150 million industry"? Is it low? Is it high? Or is it as good as anybody's guess? Whatever it is, one thing is clear: from now on, this printed number, whose origin is dubious in the first place, is likely to become some sort of a benchmark for any future data related to Nepali music. Next year, add the obligatory 10 percent growth and, presto, the music industry will be worth about Rs 165 million! And so it goes, the game of transforming speculative guesses into sober-sounding facts.
I use this example not to take this newspaper to task (though, in fairness to its readers, the paper should lay out the sources of the numbers it cites), but to point out that whenever there is a need for numbers related to the Nepali business sector, there seems to be this flippant tendency to fling numbers apparently out of thin air. In this case, it's one thing to say, for instance, that the Nepali music industry, though bursting with talent, is a fragmented one, and that its market estimates, depending on who you ask, are various. It's another to rush to attach numbers when guesses and unknowns loom large.
Even when numbers are available, they do not add up to new insight. Example: Nepal Tourism Board's (NTB) annual "up-and-down" data that track visitor arrivals by air. Even when you know that the total number of visitors stood at 215,922 in 2002, you still don't know what it means in terms of the absorbent capacity of Nepal's tourism industry. How high or low is that number, when pressed against-not last year's data, as NTB is fond of doing-a benchmark that measures the full capacity of the industry in any month? Hotels at least talk about occupancy rates to show the use or under use of rooms at their disposal. NTB's data only gives numbers without giving us any indication as to how those numbers reflect Nepal's use or under-use of available tourism capacity-an idea that should drive any tourism-related debate in the country.
The only reliable figures in Nepali business come from those institutions that require, by law, firms to submit data before they clear up regulatory hurdles to proceed with their businesses. One knows, for instance, that Nepal exported 16,93,196 sq m of carpet worth more than $80 million to various countries in 2001-2002. This information is available because the sector that exports carpet is relatively much more organised, and its members go through the Carpet and Wool Development Board, which collects the information, to obtain necessary permissions.
Why should we care whether numbers are truthful or not? To be sure, numbers by themselves do not mean much. But in these days when talks of knowledge economy, unregulated markets and competitive firms reign supreme, numbers, as bandied about by everyone, have all the more power to represent or misrepresent Nepali business scenarios. As such, in Nepal, for any business-related discussion and debate, we the consumers of numbers, would do ourselves a service when we start by not taking numbers at face value but by asking where the numbers come from and what they mean and represent. And that brings us back to asking this question again: just how big is the Nepali music industry in terms of the revenue it generates? Any takers?
(Ashutosh Tiwari begins this fortnightly column, which will alternate with Artha Beed's "Economic Sense" in this space. Tiwari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)