Economy

108 Economists, Social Scientists Raise Red Flags Over Interference in Data Estimation

A joint statement called for the restoration of 'institutional independence' and integrity to statistical organisations.

New Delhi: Expressing concerns over “political interference” in influencing statistical data in India, 108 economists and social scientists Thursday called for the restoration of “institutional independence” and integrity to the statistical organisations.

Their joint statement comes in the backdrop of controversy over revision of GDP numbers and withholding employment data by the NSSO. The appeal has been made 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.

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 the appeal.

Also read: India’s Missing Agricultural Data

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).

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%, the highest in a decade, they said: “This seems to be at variance with the evidence marshalled by many economists”.

Also read: A (Failed) Quest to Obtain India’s Missing Jobs Data

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.

Read the full text below:

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Economic statistics are a public good. They are a vital necessity for policy-making and informed public discourse in democracies where citizens seek accountability from its government. The use of scientific methods for collection, and estimation and their timely dissemination, therefore, form vital public services. It is, thus, imperative that the agencies associated with collection and dissemination of statistics like Central Statistical Office (CSO) and National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) are not subject to political interference and their work, therefore, enjoys total credibility. For these reasons, globally, such institutions are usually bestowed with professional autonomy.

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 was often criticised for the quality of its estimates, but never were allegations made of political interference influencing decisions and the estimates themselves.

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 following list is illustrative in nature.

– In early 2015, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) issued a new GDP series (with the revised base year 2011-12), which showed a significantly faster growth rate for the years 2012-13 and 2013-14 compared to growth under the earlier series.

– These revised estimates were surprising as they did not square with related macro-aggregates. Since then, with almost every new release of GDP numbers, more problems with the base-year revision have come to light. In January this year, for instance, the CSO’s revised estimates of GDP growth rate for 2016-17 (the year of demonetisation), shot up by 1.1 percentage points to 8.2 percent, the highest in a decade! This seems to be at variance with the evidence marshalled by many economists.

– In 2018, two competing back series for varying lengths of time were prepared – separately by two official bodies, (a committee of) the National Statistical Commission and later by the CSO. The two showed quite opposite growth rates for the last decade. The National Statistical Commission numbers were removed from the official web site and the CSO numbers were later presented to the public by the Niti Aayog, an advisory body which had hitherto no expertise in statistical data collection. All this caused great damage to the institutional integrity of the autonomous statistical bodies.

– In December 2018, the schedule for the release of results from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of the NSSO was not met. This was the first economy-wide employment survey conducted by NSSO after 2011-12 and was therefore deemed important. Two members of the National Statistical Commission, 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. Subsequently, news reports based on leaks of the report showed an unprecedented rise in unemployment rates in 2017-18; this perhaps explained why the Government did not want to release the report. There have since been news reports that the PLFS of 2017-18 will be scrapped altogether by the Government.

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, and impress 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 national and global reputation of India’s statistical bodies is at stake. More than that, statistical integrity is crucial for generating data that would feed into economic policy-making and that would make for honest and democratic public discourse.

List of signatories:

1.    Rohit Azad (Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU))

2.    Amiya Bagchi (Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK))

3.    Pulapre Balakrishnan (Ashoka University)

4.    Pradipta Bandopadhyay (Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) Kolkata)

5.    Abhijit Banerjee (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US)

6.    Arindam Banerjee (Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD))

7.    Taposik Banerjee (AUD)

8.    Pranab Bardhan (University of California at Berkeley)

9.    Rakesh Basant (India Institute of Management Ahmadabad (IIM-A))

10.  Amit Basole (AzimPremji University (APU))

11.  Amit Bhaduri (JNU)

12.  Debashish Bhattacherjee (Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM-C))

13.  Rajesh Bhattacharya (IIM-C)

14.  Sukanta Bhattacharya (University of Calcutta)

15.  James Boyce (University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US)

16.  Emily Breza (Harvard University, US)

17.  Achin Chakraborty (IDSK)

18.  Manisha Chakraborty (IIM-Calcutta)

19.  Tanika Chakraborty (IIM Calcutta)

20.  Mahalaya Chatterjee (University of Calcutta)

21.  Arun Chandrasekhar (Stanford University, US)

22.  C P Chandrasekhar (JNU)

23.  Ignatius Chithelen (Banyan Tree Capital New York)

24.  Shamik Chowdhury (AUD)

25.  Romar Correa (formerly with Mumbai University)

26.  Arindam Das-Gupta (Goa Institute of Management)

27.  Indraneel Dasgupta (ISI-Kolkata)

28.  Madhav Datar (formerly with IDBI Bank)

29.  Ashwini Deshpande (Ashoka University)

30.  SatishDeshpande (Delhi University)

31.  Ritu Diwan (Indian Association of Women’s Studies)

32.  Jean Dreze (Allahabad University)

33.  Esther Duflo (MIT, US)

34.  Patrick Francois (University of British Columbia(UBC), Canada)

35.  MaitreeshGhatak (London School of Economics)

36.  Jayati Ghosh (JNU)

37.  MeenaGopal (Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai)

38.  Sumeet Gulati (UBC, Canada)

39.  Himanshu (JNU)

40.  Arjun Jayadev (APU)

41.  Mary John (Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi)

42.  A V Jose (formerly with International Labour Organisation)

43.  K P Kannan (Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum)

44.  Retika Khera (Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A))

45.  Ashok Kotwal (UBC, Canada)

46.  N Krishnaji (formerly with CDS)

47.  Sashi Kumar (Asianet)

48.  Amartya Lahiri (UBC, Canada)

49.  Kanika Mahajan (Ashoka University

50.  Surajit Majumdar (JNU)

51.  Deepak Malghan (Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIM-B))

52.  Nandini Manjrekar(TISS, Mumbai)

53.  Sona Mitra (Institute of Financial Management Research)

54.  Mritiunjoy Mohanty (IIM Calcutta)

55.  Kumarjit Mandal (University of Calcutta)

56.  Dilip Mookherjee (Boston University, US)

57.  Sebastian Morris (IIM-A)

58.  Sripad Motiram (UMass Boston)

59.  Anirban Mukherjee (University of Calcutta)

60.  Ishita Mukhopadhyay (University of Calcutta)

61.  R Nagaraj (Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, (IGIDR), Mumbai)

62.  Sudha Narayanan (IGIDR)

63.  Pulin Nayak (formerly DSE)

64.  Paul Niehaus (UC San Diegao, US)

65.  Partha Pratim Pal (IIM Calcutta)

66.  Ceena Paul (SNDT Women’s University)

67.  Niranjan Rajadhyaksha (IDFC Institute, Mumbai)

68.  R Ramakumar (TISS, Mumbai)

69.  Srinivasan Ramani (The Hindu)

70.  Bharat  Ramaswami (Ashoka University)

71.  J Mohan Rao (UMass Amherst)

72.  Vikas Raval (JNU)

73.  Debraj Ray (New York University, US)

74.  Partha Ray (IIM- Calcutta)

75.  Ranjan Ray (Monash University, Australia)

76.  C Rammanohar Reddy (The India Forum)

77.  Rahul Roy (ISI-Delhi)

78.  Anamitra Roychowdhury (JNU)

79.  Abhirup Sarkar (ISI-Calcutta)

80.  Runa Sarkar (IIM Calcutta)

81.  Abhijit Sen (JNU)

82.  Anindya Sen (IIM Calcutta)

83.  Chiranjib Sen (APU)

84.  Gita Sen (formerly IIM-B)

85.  Partha Sen (formerly DSE)

86.  Rajeswari Sengupta (IGIDR)

87.  A K Shiva Kumar (International Centre for Human Development, New Delhi)

88.  Soumyen Sikdar (IIMC)

89.  Saikat Sinha Roy (Jadavpur University)

90.  Anup Sinha (Formerly IIMC)

91.  Dipa Sinha (AUD)

92.  Ashima Sood (ISB Hyderabad)

93.  Atul Sood (JNU)

94.  M S Sriram (IIM Bangalore)

95.  S Subramanian (formerly with Madras Institute of Development Studies)

96.  Sukhdeo Thorat (formerly University Grants Commission)

97.  Sandip Sukhtankar (University Of Virginia, US)

98.  Hema Swaminathan (IIM-B)

99.  Madhuru Swaminathan (Indian Statistical Institute, Bengaluru (ISI-B)).

100. Padmini Swaminathan (formerly with Centre for Social Development, Hyderabad)

101. Alex Thomas (APU)

102.  Jayan Jose Thomas (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT-D))

103.  Jeemol Unni (Ahmedabad University)

104.  A Vaidyanathan (formerly MIDS)

105.  M Vijay Baskar (MIDS)

106.  P S Vijayshankar (Samaj Pragati Sahajog)

107.  Vamsi Vikulabharanam (UMass Amherst)

108. Brinda Viswanathan (Madras School of Economics)

(With inputs from PTI)

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