Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Rahul Gandhi using 108 scholars’ dissent on data makes it political, not intellectual concern

(This article first appeared in The Print in co-authorship with Dr Vandana Mishra and Dr  Netajee Abhinandan)

Congress president Rahul Gandhi and other leaders of his party spared no time in attacking the Narendra Modi government after “108 economists and social scientists” called for restoration of “institutional independence and integrity to the statistical organisations.”
The use of the statement of academics as a political tool to score points raises serious doubts about the professed neutrality of this exercise, which has, lest one forgets, unfolded in the backdrop of a highly charged political environment with general elections less than a month away.
The nation is once again in danger, we are told, not from external aggressors but from a slugfest over statistical data. Newspapers and news portals last week told us that concerns had been raised over “political interference” and attempts to influence data collection and analysis in the country. The statement released by the group of academics said: “It (the 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 appealed to all professional economists, statisticians and ‘independent researchers’ to raise their voice against this alleged interference. Eight names from this group have been listed in different news items, out of which three are foreigners and five are Indians. At least one of them has been a cadre member of Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A look at the political affiliation of 100 other signatories is bound to reveal more names that have been closely associated with either the Left or the Congress. It’s hard to imagine, therefore, how this can be projected as an independent and neutral effort.
In such circumstances, therefore, it becomes imperative to verify whether the current government is really manipulating data or is it being held to ransom by some academics who are foot-soldiers of the shadow army of opposition parties.
The concerned academics have raised hackles over the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data released by the Modi government. The controversy first erupted when an unverified report was published in a newspaper claiming unemployment data was at a “45-year high” supposedly based on an unpublished report of the NSSO. The said report has not been released so far and the government reportedly said on March 16 that it will unveil jobs data by the month end.
The primary claim of the leaked news report was that unemployment rate was at 6.1 per cent, which was said to have been the highest in 45 years. It is important to note here that the NSSO samples the population for employment data once in five years with the sample collection and compilation of findings running into months.
In deference to facts and contemporary pace, it is inaccurate to use one year’s employment sample as representative of five years, and further use this to claim highest or lowest in 45 years. In statistical studies, the devil lies in the detail – sample size, year, time taken, comparative parameters – and in academia, it is shocking to build arguments on a section of an unverified report. In this light, the said academics should have instead appealed to political parties and media personnel to read statistics holistically and not use partial or leaked reports to create an environment of uncertainty.
The farcical misuse of statistics doesn’t end here. While news reports claim that the employment rate was at a 45-year high, they fail to mention a critical contradiction – the 2011 census had pegged unemployment rate at 11.18%. Now, the census is a far bigger exercise with a wider sample size and more accurate results. Even if we were to take the partial figures, allegedly of the NSSO, at face value, they would still not amount to being highest in 45 years. Nevertheless, contradictions and flaws are part of a statistical exercise; what is alarming, though, is the attempt to mask these contradictions and present one side as complete, absolute and final. Any academic worth his salt knows that it reeks of manipulation.
The so-called leaked partial data led to a race for data points, and intricate statistical findings were turned into exit polls overnight. In these changed times when the nature of jobs itself is changing, it is required that other reports like those of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Azim Premji University’s State of Working India 2018 report and the EPFO data should also have been taken into consideration to arrive at a holistic and comprehensive understanding.
GDP Data
The battle on the statistical front goes further back when two factors to calculate the GDP were updated. It was claimed at the time that the government had increased growth rate under its own tenure while decreasing that of the previous governments. The change from factor-cost to market-cost and shift in base year were part of regular upgrading of methodology and brought Indian methodology in line with global standards. However, these changes were projected as insidious efforts by the government to manipulate statistical data.
In reality, the new factors had to be used to produce back series and this exercise threw up the growth rate of 8.5% for 2010-2011 as opposed to 10.3% for the same period calculated by the old formula. Assuring the veracity of coverage and methodology used to compile the second back series, the NITI Aayog said, “Back series released today by CSO has been checked for its methodological soundness by leading statistical experts in the country.”
Finance minister Arun Jaitley also defended the findings, saying, “The series have been revised based on the applicability of the data. The formula remains the same. Based on the same yardstick, the earlier years of the UPA have been revised downwards. So, you gain in some years, you lose in some. Data is realistic, it is not fictional. So, what was welcomed by the UPA in 2015 is now criticised in 2018 because it got revised downwards. CSO is a completely credible organisation and it maintains an arm’s length from the finance ministry.”
Data Politics
The data controversy got a shot in the arm with the resignation of acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission (NSC), P.C. Mohanan, along with another member J. Meenakshi. This seems that the extended arms of opposition parties in academia and media once again churned out conspiracy theories. As a result, the academics who may have actually wanted to create a debate around jobs are in truth being led away from it.
Instead of understanding the changing nature, pattern and aspirations of the workforce and its impact on data collection, they are now engaged in calibrating and whetting arguments for opposition. Instead of discussing the dramatically changing priorities and aspirations in the age group of 15-29 years and its impact on employment data, the declining female work participation with rise in family incomes and the mismatch between skills needed for jobs and college education, they have become unsuspecting participants and pawns in a high-stakes political battle.
The joint statement by the said 108 academics declares ominously, “The global reputation of India’s statistical institution is at stake,” dangerously echoing the opposition’s facile cry of the “idea of India being in danger” or “Emergency-like situation” in India. It is important to counter such efforts and not allow a group of few to arrogate the voice of all. Academics should do a rational assessment and then reach a judgment — not taking anyone’s statement or signature as the final word.

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