A legendary comment attributed to Benjamin Disraeli is how most people view data. He famously said that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. The common man may share this jaundiced view, but we now live and breathe by not just data, but Big Data. It can apparently move mountains or even ocean currents, determine ways to rescue people and tell corporates about the innermost desires of every human being. Data has become an all-powerful tool in the hands of governments and companies. The recognition of this power seems to be at the heart of the political controversy that has erupted over the veracity of data related to the country’s economic growth.
Revising GDP data
The issue pertains to the calculations of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is used to determine the economic performance of a country. In this case, the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) has revised the GDP data for the period from 2004-5 to 2011-12. This is part of the normal revisions made to update such data periodically to ensure that more contemporary segments of information are included to make it more relevant. For instance, the mobile phones sector did not even exist till some years ago and its significance in the economy has been growing over the years. The telecom industry, thus, needs to be included in any consideration of economic performance. Such new areas are included by carrying out these revisions and updates.
The last revision was carried out in 2015 when the base year for GDP estimates was moved from 2004-5 to 2011-12. In order to harmonise the data, the revision has now been extended backwards to 2004-5 – hence termed the back series. The problem is that this revision has ended up showing a decline in the GDP growth during these years as compared to the earlier series which had 2004-5 as the base year.
Why is the Congress upset?
What is most galling to the Congress is the fact that the one year when double digit growth of 10.3 per cent was recorded under the UPA government has now been downgraded to 8.5 per cent. To add to its angst, the revised data now shows that the average growth rate during the UPA regime is lower than that of the current NDA government. A war of words has, thus, broken out between the Congress and the ruling BJP over the integrity of this data.
Such politicisation of statistics is unusual in this country. The CSO has always been viewed as a hallowed institution that stands above politics and the shifting sands of governments that come and go. Its data has always been considered above board and beyond reproach. For the first time, perhaps, questions are being raised about the veracity of the data on which the past GDP estimates are being altered.
Why there are doubts over data veracity
There are several reasons for the fears being expressed in the public domain.
1 The ferocity of the opposition party’s attack on the new data has much to do with the impending elections. The Congress needs to ensure that it can tell the people that things were better under its governance and the old data squarely shows that economic growth was much higher during the UPA regime. The altered data undoubtedly makes it difficult for the party to make such claims during its campaign.
2 The data was released in an unusual way. Unlike in the past when only the chief statistician presided over such press conferences, this time the Niti Aayog vice-chairperson was also present to announce the data. It gave a political tinge to the proceedings. It would have been in the fitness of things if the data had been left to the CSO to present to the public as these are its findings. While the Niti Aayog technically presides over the CSO, in fact, it has always distanced itself from public pronouncements. The government has, thus, only itself to blame for getting involved in an unseemly controversy and even impinging, to some extent, on the autonomy of an institution that has till now had an impeccable reputation.
3 There seem to be questions raised by academics and economists over the manner in which the final results have been calculated. But these questions were raised even in 2015 when the base year was changed.
More clarity will probably emerge when the report is released by the CSO. Normal academic queries have now
come into the public eye and even in television studios since it has become a political rather than remain an economic issue.
4 That another set of similar data was released only a few months ago is another cause of opposition. This was released by a committee set up by the National Statistics Commission. It had estimated that growth during the UPA regime was higher than during the present NDA government. The discrepancy between the committee’s estimates and that of the CSO has added fuel to the raging fire over the issue.
The fact is that both the ruling party and the opposition need to take a step back on this issue. Data cannot be manipulated to suit the interests of any political entity. As of now, there is no evidence to show that the integrity of the CSO has been compromised in any way. The onus is on the government, however, to indicate that the autonomy of this institution remains intact. One way would be to distance itself, as has been the tradition, from the CSO interactions with the media. The country’s high global reputation for dissemination of unbiased data needs to remain intact. Let us keep politics out of economic statistics, for these are the hard truths that will lift the country’sgrowth.
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