Another set of bad economic numbers, another report buried by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government? Earlier this year, the government’s refusal to publish a report on jobs numbers – which revealed a four-decade high in unemployment – turned into a controversy, leading to resignations from the National Statistical Commission. This week saw the sequence repeat itself, with much less attention paid to the buried numbers.
Is it because this is what we expect from the Modi government at this point?
Business Standard’s Somesh Jha reported last week that consumer spending had fallen for the first time in four decades in 2017-’18, according to the consumer expenditure survey carried out by the National Statistical Office. The survey, as per the report, had been approved for release in June but was withheld by the government.
After the news reported on it, the government promptly said that it was scrapping the report altogether, citing “data quality issues.” However, unidentified officials told the newspaper that the reason the survey was not being released was because of the “adverse findings.”
The numbers are indeed shocking. A developing economy like India’s should not expect to see any drop in consumption numbers, not least because of how low they were in the first place. Yet the junked survey seems to show that the Indian economy is going through the kind of tumult that it last saw during the global oil crisis of the 1970s.
Though the survey reportedly does not attempt to explain why it shows such alarming results, it is not hard to connect the findings to the two big economic interventions of Modi’s first term: demonetisation and the shoddy rollout of the Goods and Services Tax, both of which have been blamed for the three years of slowing growth India is currently experiencing.
It is likely, of course, that these numbers also reflect larger concerns about the state of the Indian economy and the plight of its poor beyond the policies of the current administration. But how are we to examine and engage with that unless the survey is published?
If it is generally accepted that the year 2017-’18 was anomalous, and so should not be taken as a reference point for other calculations, like updating the Gross Domestic Product methodology, that too can be done without having to suppress the findings of the report.
But, as Scroll.in has covered over the Hard Times series, which focuses on the state of the Indian economy, leaders in the current administration have consistently refused to even acknowledge a slowdown, so refusing to acknowledge a report that paints a disturbing picture seems par for the course.
Indeed, just last week, a Union minister insisted that nothing was wrong because, “airports are full, trains are full, people are getting married” and that anyone talking about a slowdown is doing it to “malign” the image of Narendra Modi.
But, as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh points out, “shooting down messengers of bad news or shutting off economic reports and data is juvenile and does not behove a rising global economic powerhouse. No amount of subterfuge can hide the performance and analysis of a $3-trillion market economy of 1.2 billion people.”
This is advice that the Modi government should pay attention to. The slowdown is real, and hiding the numbers achieves nothing – other than convincing analysts and potential investors that Indian data is not trustworthy. If India is to make its way out of this morass, the government needs to offer a clear-eyed view of the current situation and a straightforward plan to work its way out, including being open to suggestions and consultation with all sorts of viewpoints.
Simply sticking its head in the sand and insisting that “everything is fine” will not bump up actual consumption or jobs numbers, no matter how many languages you choose to repeat it in.