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A Top Statistician Bemoans India's Apathy on Official Data

(Bloomberg) -- Government interference is undermining the integrity of India’s statistics apparatus, a former head of the country’s apex statistical body said, raising questions about the reliability of data from an economy poised to be the world’s fifth-largest.

P. C. Mohanan, the former acting head of the National Statistical Commission, said questions raised about the agency’s work by a government think tank, the withholding of a jobs report and the lack of enough statisticians were taking a toll on the institution. He, along with another colleague, resigned in January in protest.

“I had never felt any pressure from the government” until recently, Mohanan said in a telephone interview. “Even when the economic reforms were carried out in the early 1990s nobody questioned the survey reports that showed increased poverty figures.”

The comments by NITI Aayog, the think tank, on the National Sample Survey Office’s jobs report was cited by Mohanan as an example of interference. The spokesmen for the think tank and the statistics ministry didn’t immediately respond to separate emails seeking comments.

Mohanan’s views highlight a risk to autonomy of institutions under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which has been accused of meddling with the functioning of entities from the central bank to the federal police. It also undermines the reliability of data, some of which have seen substantial revision recently.

Fastest Growth

Data last month showed economic growth in the year Modi banned 86 percent of currency was among the fastest ever at 8.2 percent.

“The magnitude is the issue,” Mohanan said. “If the revisions are large, then there is a problem not just for investors but also for the government because a lot of calculations are based on those GDP numbers.”

The latest assessment of India’s economy is due Thursday, when the government will release GDP data for the October-December quarter. Economists forecast growth will slow to 6.7 percent from 7.1 percent in the previous quarter.

Apart from sharp revisions to GDP data, Mohanan is concerned about the withholding of reports that purportedly show the government in poor light.

“Over the years, we found that the ministry of statistics was not being serious about the commission," Mohanan said. “We found that one of the reports that we had approved was not getting released.”

The jobs data, which was subsequently leaked and reported by a local newspaper, showed jobless rate was at the highest in 45 years. The government has rejected the findings of the leaked jobs data, saying they aren’t final, according to NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar.

Data Suspect

Eminent economists such as Kaushik Basu have expressed concerns about India’s job situation, saying it is worse than many suspect.

With elections due by May, that’s bound to hurt the image of Modi, who came to power promising to create 10 million jobs annually. While his government’s final budget focused on relieving distress of farmers, it was missing details on measures to curb unemployment.

Apathy

For a country aiming to become a $5 trillion economy by 2025 and lure more foreign investments, there is a dearth of reliable official statistics ranging from monthly retail sales data to housing starts.

Mohanan said the problem was a lack of manpower and government apathy.

Almost a fifth of the posts in the Indian Statistical Service were vacant, while that number was about a quarter for the junior positions, according to the statistics ministry’s latest annual report.

“Money isn’t an issue, manpower is,” he said. “But this broadly is in line with the government’s policy where it is not recruiting.”

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