A group of economists and social scientists on Thursday urged the Indian government to restore the integrity of statistical organisations as their national and global reputation was “at stake”. Any data unfavourable to the government “seems to get revised or suppressed on the basis of some questionable methodology”, they said, citing some recent examples.
In a statement, the group of 108 people said it was time for “all professional economists, statisticians, [and] independent researchers in policy”, to come together to “raise their voice against the tendency to suppress uncomfortable data, and impress upon the government authorities, current and future, and at all levels, to restore access and integrity to public statistics, and re-establish institutional independence and integrity to the statistical organisations”.
Integrity of statistics, they said, is crucial to generate data “that would feed into economic policy-making”, which would lead to “honest and democratic” public discourse.
The signatories included Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ashwini Deshpande of Ashoka University, Jean Dreze of the Allahabad University, Maitreesh Ghatak of London School of Economics, Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Reetika Khera of Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, and former University Grants Commission chairman Sukhadeo Thorat.
Controversial GDP and jobs data
The statement noted that several problems have come to light ever since India, under the Narendra Modi government, changed the base year for calculating GDP growth to 2011-’12. For instance, the GDP growth data for 2016-’17, released in January, was 8.2%, which is 1.1 percentage points higher than the previous estimates, the group said. This data, in the year of demonetisation, was the highest in a decade and seemed to be at variance with evidence given by many economists, they added.
The statement also mentioned the back series data given by the government last year. One set of data, given by the National Statistical Commission in August 2018, had shown that India’s economy grew by over 10% for at least one year under the previous Congress-led government. However, it was soon removed from the government website, and another set of data, which showed lower numbers for the previous regime, was released three months later.
“All this caused great damage to the institutional integrity of the autonomous statistical bodies,” the statement said. Back series data refers to older GDP data revised in line with the new series.
Lastly, the group mentioned the resignations of two independent members of the National Statistical Commission in January after the government allegedly failed to publish a labour report they had prepared. A Business Standard report later claimed that the report – the National Sample Survey Office’s Periodic Labour Force Survey – had recorded the unemployment rate in India at a 45-year-high of 6.1% in 2017-’18.
“This perhaps explained why the government did not want to release the report,” they said. This was the first full financial year after the government demonetised high-value currency notes in November 2016.
“The use of scientific methods for collection, and estimation [of data] and their timely dissemination form vital public services,” the statement said. “It is, thus, imperative that the agencies associated with collection and dissemination of statistics like Central Statistical Office and National Sample Survey Organisation are not subject to political interference and their work, therefore, enjoys total credibility.”