In light of all that has emerged about the way the Bharatiya Janata Party-run Centre has treated official data in the last few months, it is hard to see NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar’s request for his organisation to be allowed to “improve the quality of data” in the system as anything but a threat to India’s statistical set up. Kumar told the Financial Express that the NITI Aayog will seek a “formal role” for itself in improving the quality of India’s economic data.

To illustrate this, Kumar gave the perfect example of what one hopes those responsible for collecting official data do not do: Deciding what the outcome ought to be and designing the statistical set-up in such a way as to get the desired result. Or, as the Financial Express put it, “stating that the ‘whole narrative that there is job loss in the economy is bogus’, [Kumar] added that if that is the finding of the NSSO Survey, even that should be questioned when the report is finally released.”

In other words, Kumar is saying, never mind what the National Sample Survey Office’s jobs survey has found, even though it was initiated by the current BJP-run government, not the previous administration. If it finds that there have been job losses, then it is bogus, and India needs other data.

The context here is that the NSSO’s Periodic Labour Force Survey report, which was approved by the National Statistical Commission but never released by the government, shows the government in an extremely bad light. The report, portions of which have been reported by the Business Standard, found that unemployment spiked to a 45-year high in the period after demonetisation.

But in a rather remarkable press conference soon after this was reported by the newspaper, Kumar insisted that the data could not be confirmed until it was approved by the Cabinet and insisted that the jobs data was not final, though as per the official process it is. The refusal to release the data prompted the two independent members of the National Statistical Commission to resign.

Those developments seemed like an echo of what happened when the back-series Gross Domestic Product numbers were reportedly halted by the NITI Aayog – because they seemed to show the current government in a bad light – and released weeks later, with figures that flattered the BJP-run Centre. Then too, experts and former bureaucrats questioned the involvement of the NITI Aayog, a political institution, in what should otherwise be an independent system of gathering and releasing data.

Now NITI Aayog wants to be formally involved. Allowing it to do so would mean India giving up a robust statistical system that has been developed over the years, one that has often been lauded by other economists. India should ideally be moving towards more transparency rather than suppressed reports and political meddling. Instead, Kumar seems to be advocating a different set-up that paraphrases Groucho Marx in offering the government a simple maxim: Here are our official figures, and if you don’t like them... well, we have other ones.

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