Economists say political interference undermining economic data
15 March 2019
A group of economists on Thursday called for ‘institutional independence” of statistical organisations and raised concerns over what they see "political interference" in influencing statistical data in India.
A joint statement, reported to have been issued by 108 economists and social scientists, comes in the backdrop of controversy over revision of gross domestic product (GDP) numbers and withholding employment data by the NSSO.
In fact, the economists fear that any statistics that cast an iota of doubt on the achievement of the government seem to get revised or suppressed on the basis of some questionable methodology.
For decades, India's statistical machinery have been producing poor quality data, but these, however, enjoyed reputation for the integrity with which these were churned out, reports cited the economist as saying.
"It was often criticised for the quality of its estimates, but never were allegations made of political interference influencing decisions and the estimates themselves," reports quoted them as stating in an appeal.
It is imperative that the agencies associated with collection and dissemination of statistics like the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) should not be subjected to political interference to ensure credibility of the data.
"Lately, the Indian statistics and the institutions associated with it have, however, come under a cloud for being influenced and indeed even controlled by political considerations," the statement said.
They citing an instance wherein the CSO revised upward GDP growth estimates for 2016-17 (the year of demonetisation) by 1.1 percentage points to 8.2 per cent, the highest in a decade, they said: "This seems to be at variance with the evidence marshalled by many economists".
They have sought support of professional economists, statisticians and independent researchers to force the government’s hand from the tendency "to suppress uncomfortable data" and impress upon the government on the need to restore access and integrity to public statistics and ensure institutional independence.
The statement also expressed concern over the government’s reported move to withhold the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of NSSO and altogether scrap the PLFS of 2017-18.
Two members of the National Statistical Commission (NSC), including the acting chairman, subsequently resigned because they felt the NSSO was delaying the release of the report, though the NSC itself had officially cleared it, they added.
The signatories include Rakesh Basant (IIM-A), James Boyce (University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US), Emily Breza (Harvard University, US), Satish Deshpande (Delhi University), Patrick Francois (University of British Columbia, Canada), R Ramakumar (TISS, Mumbai), Hema Swaminathan (IIM-B) and Rohit Azad (JNU), among others.