November 11, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
It would seem that every time there is something that would show the government in a bad light, miraculously it has no data on it. Ironically, the ‘no data’ folder seems to be taking up the greatest disk space. So, the government had no data after its bungled COVID-19 lockdown forced millions of migrants onto the roads. They walked hundreds of kilometres back home and many perished on the way. When asked how many migrants had lost their jobs, the government said it had no data. For the record, the World Bank said that 40 million migrant jobs were impacted or lost in April 2020. How many health workers died on the job? No data. When the all-India Household Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the National Statistical Office during 2017-2018 was ready, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation withheld it till after the 2019 general election. The results should have been out earlier but the government claimed “data quality issues”. The data leaked anyway, suggesting a significant downward trend in consumption, a first since data collection started in 1972-73. There is something strange going on with critical data in India, data that will tell us the true state of affairs. It is either not being collected or withheld. This, in my view, is dishonest and in fact a significant breach of public trust.
Experts have long questioned the government’s claims on economic growth. In this financial year’s first quarter, India clocked 7.8%, according to the National Statistical Office. But, never mind the wall-to-wall propaganda claiming high growth, experts say there are discrepancies in the statistics and point to the high unemployment levels and rising wealth inequality. Experts have said that GDP figures should consider both income and expenditure and, when adjusted for it, the growth rate plummets.
Let’s understand this. India’s GDP is calculated using two methods – one based on economic activity (at factor cost) and the second on expenditure (at market prices). The first considers eight industries and their performance. The expenditure method, on the other hand, considers how different areas of the economy are doing, from trade to personal consumption.
Done right, the two figures may not match perfectly but should be very close. The GDP data records the difference in results under the ‘discrepancies’ subhead. Discrepancies have seen a spike upwards from -3.4% to 2.8%, which is 6.2% of the GDP.
One analysis shows that investment in assets and change in inventories have remained stable but private consumption, government spending and exports have fallen. So, how can the shares of most areas being considered have fallen unless something else has risen – if the economy has grown to the extent we are told it has?
Here’s another example. The Indian National Statistical Office say that income from production rose at an annual rate of 7.8% in April-June but expenditure rose by only 1.4%. Experts says both measures have errors.
As you can tell, there are serious questions about the data we are being fed.
I want to come back to the need to combine income and expenditure while calculating growth. Australia, Germany and the UK incorporate both. The US, meanwhile, considers expenditure as the main metric but accounts for the differences between income and expenditure by reporting an average of the two. Economists point out that, if you apply the US method to India’s data, the most recent growth rate falls from 7.8% to 4.5%.
Poor economic performance manifests itself in many ways. Inequality is one of the most significant. At a time, when large parts of the population are struggling to simply make ends meet, an overvalued exchange rate means affluent Indians can purchase imported cars, watches and designer labels. Meanwhile, there is a tremendous shortage of jobs.
Good data can be the government’s greatest ally in solving our most complex national problems. Instead, this government seems to have a sense of dread about it. The lack of interest in a census, which is overdue, is one example of it.
India had its first census in 1881 and continued to have it once a decade for the next 130 years. Whether it was war time or peace time, in good weather and bad, enumerators visited every home to collect data about families, jobs, socio-cultural information, earnings, etc. This exercise yielded crucial information that painted a picture of the state of the nation. From these insights, policymakers made decisions about everything, from funds allocation to departments to electoral constituency boundaries.
However, for the first time, the census, due in 2021, has been delayed and no one knows when it will be held. The data it will yield will be crucial for critical activities like welfare schemes.
The census was due in 2020 and was understandably delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the lockdown ended ages ago and COVID is no longer a challenge. There is no word on the exercise and now it almost certainly won’t happen till after the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.
Perhaps the first impact of this delay will be on the public distribution system. Since the government still depends on 2011 census data to determine who is eligible for welfare, more than 100 million Indians are estimated to be excluded from the PDS.
Other than the impact on welfare schemes, the census is also the source of a data set from which is derived the National Sample Survey that gives information on all aspects of Indians’ economic life as well as the National Family Health Survey.
The government has faced questions over the quality of data and delay in several surveys. This is ironic because India has in the past helped many developing countries set up their own censuses. Now, the lack of data integrity could even harm India’s reputation internationally. What a slide!
Most of us never think about it but quality data is critical to governance. It affects our daily lives although we never really think of it that way. So, what do we make of a government that tries to hide data or simply shows no interest in it? The intent is all too obvious.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.