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India election

Indian debate intensifies over government stats before elections

Economists question credibility, chartered accountants rebut 'baseless' concerns

The debate assume significance as they have come just before India's seven-phase general elections from Apr. 11 to May 19.   © AP

NEW DELHI -- Just weeks ahead of India's general elections, a debate is raging about the credibility of the country's statistical data under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a rare appeal, a group of 108 economists and social scientists from across the globe have come together to submit an open letter entitled 'Economic Statistics in a Shambles', in which they voice their concerns about "political interference" in India's statistical machinery and called for the country's statistical organizations to be given back their institutional independence and integrity.

In the letter released on March 14, they write that the Indian statistics system and the institutions associated with it have come under a cloud of influence and control related to political considerations.

"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," the letter said.

The signatories included James Boyce (from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the U.S.), Emily Breza (from Harvard University, U.S.), Satish Deshpande (Delhi University) and Patrick Francois (University of British Columbia, Canada).

The letter came against the backdrop of controversy over the revision of gross domestic product numbers after India's Central Statistics Office changed the base year of national accounts from the 2004-05 fiscal year to 2011-12, as well as the withholding of job data by the National Sample Survey Organisation. One local media outlet reported that job data showed the unemployment rate hit a 45-year high of 6.1% in the fiscal year ended March 2018. The Modi government has been criticized for withholding other unfavorable economic data.

However, others have come out in defence of the government and its data. Responding to the letter, a group of 131 Indian chartered accountants said the concerns raised by the economists and social scientists were baseless.

"Disputing government data is routine for experts around the world. However, it is unusual for a particular set to come together to discredit all data and long-standing institutions of eminence," they said in a statement on Monday.

They noted that despite India having been left behind by all its peers in economic growth between 1960 and 2014, none of these economists or social scientists had spoken out during those 54 years about the country's slow growth trajectory.

"Is it their intention to scare foreign Investors by creating doubts on the credibility of data?" said the chartered accountants' statement. Signatories included T.V. Mohandas Pai, chairman of education services provider Manipal Global, and Amarjit Chopra, former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India. Pai is considered to be a supporter of the Modi government.

The two contrasting statements come just head of India's seven-phase general elections, planned to take place from Apr. 11 to May 19. Modi is seeking a second term in office from the national polls, which will also serve as a barometer on his controversial policies, such as the demonetization of high-value banknotes in 2016 and the rollout of a goods and services tax in 2017.

In their letter, critics of government data said India's revised GDP estimates were surprising as they did not square with related macro-aggregates. "With almost every new release of GDP numbers, more problems with the base-year revision have come to light," the experts wrote.

They particularly referred to the revised estimates of GDP growth rate for the fiscal year ending March 2017 -- the year of demonetization -- when it shot up by 1.1 percentage points to 8.2%, the highest in a decade. "This seems to be at variance with the evidence marshalled by many economists."

Noted historian Ramachandra Guha said the system of collecting and verifying official statistics in independent India had been globally admired for its scientific credibility. "The Modi regime's doctoring and lying have destroyed this credibility completely," he wrote on Twitter.

Two independent members of the National Statistical Commission, who had cleared the NSSO employment report and were apparently upset over its non-publication by the government, resigned in January, leaving the country's top statistical body in limbo. Of the two, one was the commission's acting chairman P. C. Mohanan.

Meanwhile, local news agency PTI, quoting an unnamed senior government official, reported that the government was committed to maintaining the credibility of statistical organizations and that the NSSO employment data would be released by the end of March.

"A great majority [of these 108 gentlemen] are ensconced in environments of their Western universities and choose to comment on India without having any reality checks," the official was quoted as saying.

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