NITI Aayog Vice-Chairperson Rajiv Kumar has defended his presence at last week’s unveiling of the Gross Domestic Product back series data, claiming that his department was asked to look at the figures before they were released, The Indian Express reported on Monday. Kumar added that the government had been ready to make changes if there were any factual and methodological errors in the calculation of data.

The new back series data, published by the Central Statistics Office on Wednesday, showed that growth during the years of the United Progressive Alliance-led government was lower than earlier estimated. According to the figures, the average growth rate under the UPA 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%.

The data was released at a conference by Kumar and Chief Statistician Pravin Srivastava. Many questioned the role of NITI Aayog, a government think tank whose head is a political appointee, in the release of data of Central Statistics Office, which comes under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

“Everybody knows that until not too long ago, the Department of Statistics was part of the Planning Commission,” Kumar told The Indian Express. “There have always been close links between the two, simply because we use data so extensively and we work together. For example, the task force on employment statistics was chaired by my predecessor. Its recommendations are now being implemented by the CSO. In this case also, when they were about to release the back series, they asked us to have a look.”

Kumar said the NITI Aayog had organised two roundtables where experts gave “valuable suggestions”. “NITI provided the platform and subsequently, the CSO [Central Statistics Office] requested participation in the release,” he said. “Both MoSPI [Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation] and NITI are components of the Government of India, so why would it be political? Where is the issue?” Kumar asked.

Kumar said former Chief Statistician Pronab Sen’s criticism of the NITI Aayog’s involvement was unnecessary. “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,” Sen had said last week. “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.”

In response, Kumar said: “Back series is not just a ‘technistic’ exercise, it’s an issue with many dimensions and it affects the whole macro economy.”

He claimed the downward revision in growth rates was because the new series estimated the growth rate of the tertiary sector better as it was overestimated in the previous series. Kumar asserted there was “no reason for anybody to cast any aspersions on it”.

“The CSO staff are not a political set of people, they are professionals,” the NITI Aayog chief said. “Now they have brought out a GDP number (July-September quarter) which is lower… if they were politically driven, this would have been higher than the previous quarter,” Kumar claimed, adding that the new data was more in sync with the System of National Accounts of 2008, recommended by the United Nations.

“MoSPI [Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation] has done other improvements, as a result of which the results are as different as they are, and I can vouch for their professional integrity,” Kumar told the newspaper. He also claimed that 10 leading statisticians and economists of the country had reviewed and vetted the methodology.