Indian statistical system is in ruins; Why and how it should be resurrected

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New Delhi | Updated: April 20, 2019 7:01:27 AM

Indian political leaders would do well not to jeopardise their country’s statistical system for deriving political mileage

statistics, statistical system, india statistical systemIllustration: Rohnit Phore

The reputation of India’s statisticians and, for that matter, of our economists too is at stake as never before. It is because both function as twin brothers in framing a nation’s economic policy for sustainable all-round development. We are creating a bad environment by continuing to publicly denigrate our statisticians by suspecting the quality of data/statistics they produce and blame them along with the fellow economists for various inferences they draw based on such information. Who is responsible for this situation? I think it is largely the political parties who do this from political angle and particularly for electoral gains.

A damaging atmosphere is now being created for the science of ‘statistics’ in our country. This has been observed in the past in previous regimes and now in the BJP-led government at the Centre. Here are two recent glaring cases in point which concern most significant measures of our nation’s economic and social progress:

One relates to the debate around the recalculated GDP series by changing the base year from 2004-05 to 2011-12. These figures showed the performance in two years (2012-13 and 2013-14) in poorer light which fall in the UPA-2 regime. On the other hand, GDP numbers for 2017-18 were revised to 7.2% from 6.7%, and for the year 2016-17 (the year of demonetisation) it was revised upwards to 8.2% from the earlier 7.1%. So, in a way, 2016-17 becomes the best year of Narendra Modi government’s five-year tenure, but this is not supported by industry and commerce, as hugely downward trend in sales was recorded. Also, calculating back GDP series down to 2004-05, without any comparable data being available from 2011-12 backwards, became a matter of great controversy.

The second pertains to the yearly report on unemployment rates released for 2017-18 by the NSSO, which the current government has suppressed being politically inconvenient in view of the ongoing general elections. The report showed an unemployment rate of 6.1%, which is the highest in the last 45 years. This finding, in some measure, has also been corroborated by other professional credible agencies like the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) and the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University.

The academic malady in statistics is not only confined to the cases mentioned above; suspicions have been raised on various types of official statistics from time to time because of the political interference in the production of statistics. This is happening from the times of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was instrumental in setting up an Indian statistical system on the advice of PC Mahalanobis for meeting the needs of large-scale planning in India.

What is also happening now is partisan politics where a group of 108 economists, on one hand, charged the central government with hiding of information and manipulating figures to its advantage for fetching votes, while on the other hand, a category of chartered accountants, having no expertise in working out GDP figures and unemployment rates, are entering the debate to counter what the economists have said. Such unauthentic statements create unnecessary doubts in the minds of the people who have no capability to distinguish between good and bad information. So, the faith in ‘statistics’ gets eroded. This is bad politics and also creates disruption in planning process.

There is yet another burning example of data messing-up and playing with figures by two major national parties. Both the parties claim to be the ‘messiah’ of the poor. The BJP-led NDA-2 launched PM-KISAN recently and the Congress declared in its election manifesto that it would introduce a minimum income guarantee scheme called the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) if voted to power. Their intentions are good as they want to end poverty. But what is disturbing is that both parties are duping the masses and confusing them by discarding each other’s scheme by presenting unclear and twisted figures. Further, the other day, the BJP president said in an election rally that there is no crisis of jobs but there is crisis of data. Do such statements are not ultimately resulting in lack of faith in our statistical system?

It does not require any emphasis that Indian economic statisticians are held in high esteem the world over because of their high quality intellectual achievement and diligence and integrity in production of statistics. This is not to say that India’s statistical system has no lacunae, which must be removed, but we are comparable to even the most advanced economies of the world in this respect.

To conclude, Indian political leaders would do well not to jeopardise their country’s statistical system for deriving political mileage. The creation of a reformed but independent and powerful National Statistical Commission is a must to save our statistical system from ruins.

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