A statement issued by 108 economists and social scientists questioning the validity of economic data put out by the government is the latest expression of concern over the official manipulation of such data. There have been doubts about the correctness of various types of official data in the past, but those doubts arose from inadequacy or lack of representativeness of sources and material in a large and complex economy, or because of genuine methodological difficulties. But it is for the first time that the charge of systematic manipulation and politicisation of data has been made. The signatories to the statement have noted that the present government has displayed “a tendency to suppress uncomfortable data’’ and has sought restoration of “institutional independence and integrity to statistical organisations’’. The economists are of different ideological persuasions and cannot be accused of partisanship and bias against the government. They have only expressed the views of many others, too, including foreign media and investors.
The experts cited two specific cases. One was the release of back series economic data last year which showed that the GDP growth was higher under the Narendra Modi government than under the previous UPA government. This was to contradict a report of the National Statistical Commission that had shown that the GDP had grown faster during the UPA period and had touched double digit-growth twice as per the Modi government’s own new base year and method of calculating GDP. The other was the government’s decision to withhold the periodic labour force survey of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). The first was a deliberate attempt to exaggerate economic growth under the present government through misrepresentation and the second was to hide the government’s failure to create jobs. It is part of a larger policy of misrepresentation, deception and information management that has characterised the government’s claims, actions and functioning in other areas, too.
The economists have pointed out that economic statistics are a public good and are essential for policy-making and informed public discourse. They also underlined the need for the use of scientific methods for data collection and estimation and their timely dissemination, which form vital public services. Policy formulation will become difficult and faulty in the absence of data or when the data is wrong or insufficient. Investment decisions can be made only on the basis of credible data. The integrity and reliability of the country’s statistical system and institutions have come to be questioned within the country and outside because of the government’s attempts to politicise and manipulate official data. This will do long-term damage to the economy and the credibility of the entire system.