Dev 360: Data wars will intensify as polls near, get ready

Last year, the Modi government had released GDP growth estimates for the previous years based on an entirely new method of calculation.

Update: 2019-01-30 20:07 GMT
Prime Minister Narendra Modi

What does the Narendra Modi government not want you to know? With the 2019 general election inching closer, this is now a hotly debated question across the country. Get ready for slugfests over data.

Data has always been a politically sensitive issue. Wily politicians across the world use data as a weapon to make a rhetorical point, rather than information that might inform policymaking. In democracies, citizens step up to the plate and challenge them when they do that. In the United States, President Donald Trump is routinely blasted for twisting government data to suit the political moment.

This week the Narendra Modi government is in the dock over data.

The acting chairman of India’s National Statistical Commission (NSC) and another member have quit their jobs because they felt the commission was being bypassed on several issues. With the resignations of P.C. Mohanan and J.V. Meenakshi, the country’s apex advisory body on statistical matters has lost two important members. This leaves the NSC with just chief statistician Pravin Srivastava and the Niti Aayog’s Amitabh Kant as members.

What prompted their exit? Mr Mohanan, who was, till recently the acting chief of the NSC, has gone on record accusing the Central government of bypassing the commission during the finalisation of the controversial “back series GDP data”.

Last year, the Modi government had released GDP growth estimates for the previous years based on an entirely new method of calculation. All too predictably, the new data sparked a furore with the Opposition as well as independent economists questioning the new methodology which lowered the GDP growth during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era and made the current regime look good by showing better economic performance since Mr Modi came to power.

The other major grouse of the statisticians who have quit the commission is the delay in the release of the new National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) employment survey data. This was already vetted by the NSC, they said, but it has not been made public yet. No official explanation has been given either.

The jousts over what prompted top statisticians to quit their jobs comes when a former Union finance minister has gone on record about his deep distrust over government data. “I don’t trust the figures given out by the government anymore,” Mr Yashwant Sinha told members of the Indian Women’s Press Corps recently.

This is a very strong statement coming from a man who was not only a top Indian bureaucrat, being a member of the IAS, but also twice India’s finance minister (under Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar and Atal Behari Vajpayee), as well as a senior BJP leader till recently. Mr Sinha quit the party in April 2018.

Mr Sinha explained in detail the reasons for his concerns. One big worry was about the back series of GDP data. He pointed out that the government had constituted a committee headed by eminent economist Sudipto Mundle, but when the report presented some UPA years in a better light, it was quickly withdrawn.

“Then the Niti Ayog came out with a new report to show that this government’s growth numbers were better than both NDA-I and UPA,” Mr Sinha said.

Another key concern. “A report given to a parliamentary standing committee by the agriculture ministry on the impact of demonetisation on the agricultural sector showed it in a poor light. That report was quickly withdrawn after criticism,” Mr Sinha told the journalists.

In recent days, there has also been loud speculation about why the Modi government has not yet released the National Crime Records Bureau’s “Crime in India” Report. The NCRB report, released annually since 1953, offers important statistics on a range of crimes in the country such as crimes against women and children, SCs/STs and OBCs, human trafficking, etc. But the NCRB has not published the report for two consecutive years — 2017 and 2018.

At a time of deep agrarian distress, there is also no comprehensive official data on farmer suicides.

Is the government trying to bury reports with politically unpalatable data about the job situation in the country and other inconvenient truths in the run-up to the parliamentary elections?

The questions will be asked, and not only by the BJP’s political rivals.

Mr Modi came to power with the promise of creating millions of jobs for young Indians. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that data about jobs is a hot topic in the country. The government’s sunny view about its record in job creation is not universally shared.

“That India has been going through a period of ‘jobless growth’ over the past two decades is not a matter of perception. Youth unemployment was a major political plank in the recent Assembly elections, and will continue to be one for the upcoming general election,” said Himanshu, an associate professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, in a recent commentary piece in a national newspaper.

When 25 million people apply for 90,000 railway jobs, “we have a real job problem”, former Reserve Bank governor Raghuram Rajan pointed out, not too long ago.

“One of the things we have to focus on is job creation, I don’t think we have been very successful in creating enough jobs even with a growth rate of 7-7.5 per cent,” Gita Gopinath, an Indian-American and the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist, said recently.

You don’t have to be a top economist to know we have a jobs crisis. Many ordinary Indians that this columnist has spoken to in recent weeks are worried about the job situation and law and order in the country. Even those who are employed say they are holding on to their money, delaying expenditures, because of uncertain job prospects in the immediate future.

The Modi government has maintained that “more than a lack of jobs, the issue is a lack of data on jobs”.

The jousts over data have begun, and will gather momentum.

Mr Modi speaks about good governance. To walk that talk, his government needs to come clean on data on crucial issues. Without access to reliable data, there can be no evidence-based policymaking nor good governance.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at

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