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108 economists denounce tinkering with India's economic indicators; call for unity

PTI     March 15, 2019

Expressing concerns over "political interference" in statistical data in India, as many as 108 economists and social scientists on Thursday called for restoration of "institutional independence" and integrity of statistical organisations.

Their appeal comes against the backdrop of controversy over revision of gross domestic product (GDP) numbers and withholding employment data by the NSSO.

They said that for decades, India's statistical machinery enjoyed a high-level of reputation for the integrity of the data it produced on a range of economic and social parameters.

"It (statistical machinery) was often criticised for the quality of its estimates, but never were allegations made of political interference influencing decisions and the estimates themselves," they said in an appeal.

They have appealed to all professional economists, statisticians and independent researchers to come together to raise their voice against the tendency "to suppress uncomfortable data" and impress upon the government to restore access and integrity to public statistics and re-establish institutional independence.

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).

Commenting on the statement, P C Mohanan, who resigned as acting chairperson of the National Statistical Commission, said that it is a timely message and political parties should take notice of sentiments expressed by the economists.

"The message is very timely and relevant in the backdrop of the recent issues and the concerns expressed by these eminent people...It is important that political parties take notice of this,"Mohanan told PTI.

The economists and social scientists said 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) are not subject to political interference and their work, therefore, enjoys total credibility.

"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.

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".

The statement also expressed concern over withholding of Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of NSSO and news reports that the PLFS of 2017-18 will be scrapped altogether by the government.

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 108 experts, from across the globe, further said that in fact, 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.

"This is the time for all professional economists, statisticians, independent researchers in policy regardless of their political and ideological leanings to come together to raise their voice against the tendency to suppress uncomfortable data..." they said.

The experts also called for impressing upon the government authorities, current and future, and at all levels, to restore access and integrity to public statistics, and re-establish institutional independence and integrity to the statistical organisations.

The reputation of India's statistical bodies in the country and globally is at stake, they added.

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