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Whose data is it anyway?

We need strongly independent bodies such as the National Statistical Commission which can bravely present data and context without worrying about what this says about which government

editorials Updated: Jan 30, 2019 18:30 IST
Hindustan Times
Data which is unrepresentative of reality doesn’t just fool the public, but also misguides policy-makers (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” US politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said. Replace facts with data, and it would fit the drama being played out at the National Statistical Commission, an autonomous body created in 2005 to, among other things, increase the credibility of data released by the government.

Now, the last two non-official members of the commission have quit, citing their disappointment over not being involved in the back series of GDP (which was driven by NITI Aayog) and the delay in the release of NSSO data on jobs despite the commission signing off on it in December. The imputation in the first case is that the data was tweaked to make growth under the UPA government slower than that under the NDA, and in the second, that the government is reluctant to release data that is inconvenient to it. Interestingly, some time back, a committee set up by the commission itself came up with back series data that showed that growth under the UPA was actually higher than the original numbers.

The calculation of the back series also took longer than many think it should have, and other critical reports, such as a Parliamentary Standing Committee’s on employment, are in limbo.

It isn’t unknown for governments, in India and elsewhere, to spin data to suit narratives or smother data that shows them in poor light. After all, for a long time, the Chinese are believed to have ensured that their economic growth numbers looked better than they really were.

What is new, though, is the seemingly increasing incidence of these. For both the government and the opposition, shaping the narrative has become more important than presenting the facts — and in the right context. Both have smart people at their disposal, including many inspired by British politician, Benjamin Disraeli, who famously categorised the three kinds of untruths as “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

Data which is unrepresentative of reality doesn’t just fool the public, but also misguides policymakers (including those responsible for the wrong data in the first place). Accurate data, and the right context, are the best ways to capture the complexity of real world situations. For instance, as one of India’s former chief statisticians explained, the old GDP series overestimates growth in trade and the informal sector but underestimates that in industry. The back series corrects the first, but can’t do anything about the second because there is no comprehensive corporate data for the earlier period. This simple explanation means it is unwise to compare current data under the new series with old data under the new series.

Which is why we need strongly independent bodies such as the National Statistical Commission which can bravely present data and context without worrying about what this says about which government.

First Published: Jan 30, 2019 18:30 IST