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Economists allege political interference in statistical data

A group of economists has appealed to raise voice against the tendency “to suppress uncomfortable data”.

ET Bureau|
Updated: Mar 15, 2019, 08.13 AM IST
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The economists allege that any number that cast doubt on achievements of the govt seem to get ‘revised or suppressed’
New Delhi: A group of 108 Indian and foreign economists and social scientists have raised concerns over “political interference” in statistical data in India, saying that any numbers that cast doubt on the government’s achievements seem to get “revised or suppressed”.

In a letter released on Thursday, the group appealed to all professional economists, statisticians and independent researchers to come together to raise their voice against the tendency “to suppress uncomfortable data” and impress upon the government the need to restore access and integrity to public statistics and re-establish institutional independence.

“In fact, any statistics that cast an iota of doubt on the achievement of the government seem to get revised or suppressed on the basis of some questionable methodology,” the academicians said in the letter, referring to revisions in the base year and growth of gross domestic product (GDP) and unemployment numbers.

Data

“Lately, the Indian statistics and the institutions associated with it have, however, come under a cloud for being influenced and indeed even controlled by political considerations,” said the letter titled Economic Statistics in a Shambles: Need to Raise a Voice.

Former chief statistician Pronab Sen backed the call by the academics. “The only thing that matters is whether the general user of the data has that confidence that the data hasn’t been manipulated for political purposes,” he said. “Errors and technical problems are acceptable but the political system should be seen hands-off the data.”

The signatories included Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Abhijit Sen of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU); Jean Dreze of Allahabad University; Rakesh Basant of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad; Satish Deshpande of LFP Delhi University; Patrick Francois of University of British Columbia, Canada; R Ramakumar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Hema Swaminathan of IIM-Bangalore; and Rohit Azad of JNU, among others. Arun Chandrasekhar of Stanford University and Emily Breza of Harvard University have also signed the letter. The group cited three instances that seemed to involve such interference.

They alleged that after the GDP revision in 2015 by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), which showed significantly faster growth in the years 2012-13 and 2013-14 compared with growth under the earlier series, more problems have come to light with every new release of GDP numbers.

“In January this year, for instance, the CSO’s revised estimates of GDP growth rate for 2016-17 (the year of demonetisation), shot up by 1.1 percentage points to 8.2 per cent , the highest in a decade! This seems to be at variance with the evidence marshalled by many economists,” they said in the statement.

The group highlighted the significant divergence in the estimates of back series GDP data by a committee appointed by the National Statistical Commission (NSC) and the CSO, and how the two showed opposite growth rates for the past decade.

“The NSC numbers were removed from the official website and the CSO numbers were later presented to the public by the Niti Aayog, an advisory body which had hitherto no expertise in statistical data collection. All this caused great damage to the institutional integrity of the autonomous statistical bodies,” they said.

The third instance relates to the first economy-wide employment Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) that was delayed, prompting the resignation of the acting chairman and an NSC member. The report, which was later leaked, said that unemployment in India had risen to a 45-year high of over 6 per cent in 2017-18.

“Subsequently, news reports based on leaks of the report showed an unprecedented rise in unemployment rates in 2017-18; this perhaps explained why the government did not want to release the report. There have since been news reports that the PLFS of 2017-18 will be scrapped altogether by the government,” the economists said.

EMPHASISE CREDIBILITY, AUTONOMY
The academicians stated that the national and global reputation of India’s statistical bodies is at stake. “More than that, statistical integrity is crucial for generating data that would feed into economic policy-making and that would make for honest and democratic public discourse,” they said.

Stressing that while statistical machinery was often criticised for the quality of its estimates, such interference influencing decisions and the estimates themselves had never before been alleged.
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