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While the world is attempting to shed light on the future by using artificial intelligence, statistics in India, as the controversy over the GDP back series data shows, has been relegated to a political slugfest that is caught up in efforts to edit the past. (HT)
While the world is attempting to shed light on the future by using artificial intelligence, statistics in India, as the controversy over the GDP back series data shows, has been relegated to a political slugfest that is caught up in efforts to edit the past. (HT)

Opinion | Unwilling to face an inconvenient truth

  • The allegation by the former chairman of the National Statistical Commission that the govt intervened in release of jobs data only adds to the list of similar attempts in the past
  • In the past few years, the Modi government has faced severe criticism for either withholding reports or releasing data that is not rigorous

Bertrand Russell, the renowned British philosopher and mathematician, was once asked at the end of a lecture defending atheism: How will you react when you face God after death? The story goes that Russell replied, “I will tell God, well, I am sorry, but you did not give us enough evidence." Something similar is happening in India today. While the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is claiming a ‘new India’ in the making, there is an acute lack of evidence and fear that data supplied by government agencies may not be robust. The crisis intensified on Tuesday night as news broke that the acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission and another member had resigned saying the apex body is being sidelined by the government. The commission members alleged that though the committee had vetted and approved the release of a 2017-18 employment report by the National Sample Survey Office, the government decided to withhold the report for two months, raising doubts that the results may have presented an adverse jobs situation ahead of general elections. The members were also miffed that the back series gross domestic product (GDP) data was released by the Niti Aayog, the federal think tank, without even consulting the commission, which is the apex statistical body.

In the past few years, the Modi government has faced severe criticism for either withholding reports or releasing data that is not rigorous. The new GDP series introduced in 2015 has faced criticism for not being in tune with other indicators of the real economy such as non-food credit growth and the purchasing managers’ index. Not only is the new GDP series not comparable to past years, it is flawed to assume that the informal sector where data is scant is growing at the same rate as the organised sector, thereby overestimating GDP numbers. Among other reports withheld by the government is the annual publication Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India since 2016. It provides, among other indicators, the number of farmer suicides across the country, an indicator of stress in the agrarian sector, and the reasons behind them. The government is yet to release the migration data from Census 2011. It has also withheld the Labour Bureau’s 2016-17 survey, even after the Prime Minister admitted that India lacks reliable data on new job creation. Instead, it got the Central Statistics Office to use problematic data from the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation to bolster new job creation numbers.

The Indian Statistical Institute, set up before Independence, was a world-renowned organization under the leadership of the legendary P.C. Mahalanobis. In the 1949 post-Independent India, Mahalanobis initiated ambitious household surveys by setting up the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), providing the global template and earning accolades for the newly born nation. However, in recent years, the work of NSSO has been limited by a paucity of funds and shortage of staff, in addition to political interference. While the world is attempting to shed light on the future by using artificial intelligence, statistics in India, as the controversy over the GDP back series data shows, has been relegated to a political slugfest that is caught up in efforts to edit the past.

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