When they finally came, the numbers were exactly as expected. The much-awaited “back series” for the Gross Domestic Product numbers did what everyone said it would do: lower the growth rate achieved under the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance government (and hence showing the current administration in a good light). The new numbers show India’s rate of India’s economic growth over the last decade as they have been calculated under a new methodology introduced by this government. According to the figures released on Wednesday, the average growth rate under the United Progressive Alliance was 6.7%, compared to 7.3% under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Previous numbers had put the average growth rate during the UPA years at 7.75%.
It was the back story that speaks volumes. When the Central Statistical Office put out the new GDP rates in 2015, having changed the year used as the base for its calculations, a number of questions were raised about its methodology. The numbers calculated under the new method showed a much higher growth rate under Modi. It took the government more than three whole years to put out back series data that calculated growth figures for earlier years using the new methodology.
Then in August, a discussion paper by the National Statistical Commission calculating the back series showed that the growth in the UPA years using the new base year was actually much higher than previous figures had shown, breaching even the 10% mark in two years. This was hurriedly rejected by the government as being inaccurate. Earlier this month, it seemed as if the back series data was finally ready. A press conference was called on November 12 to unveil the new figures, and then, hurriedly, cancelled. Journalists were told that experts had queries about the new numbers. Naturally, this last-minute change raised eyebrows.
The data, which is usually released only by the Central Statistical Office, was jointly unveiled by that body and the NITI Aayog, a government think tank whose head is a political appointee. “When a political institution releases national statistical data, it puts a huge question mark on the credibility of the data and the political independence of the statistical agencies,” said former chief statistician Pronab Sen. “The credibility of CSO has been badly dented, not because of the data but because of the manner in which the release has been done.”
Experts will spend the next week examining how exactly the calculation has been made, and in particular trying to understand how precisely the data has ended up showing exactly what this government wanted it to. The actual numbers may yet be robust, but as a few have pointed out, there are several ways to calculate the same thing: It would be useful if the release of the new numbers was followed by healthy discussion on why a particular approach has been used. As Madan Sabnavis, of CARE Ratings asked, “If methodologies used by different experts on the same subject can throw up such opposite numbers which confuse in interpretative power, is the exercise really worth doing?”
It doesn’t help that the Modi government has driven away all of the most renowned economic talents it worked with, from Raghuram Rajan to Arvind Panagariya to Arvind Subramaniam. (In fact, former chief economic adviser Subramaniam has admitted in a book to be released soon that the government’s demonetisation decision was a draconian move.) It is for the government to convince experts and the public that the new data is trustworthy rather than simply being the product of a targeted NITI Aayog intervention.