Indian statistics undermined by political interference, academics say

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - More than 100 economists and social scientists have alleged that the Indian government is interfering with the country’s statistics-gathering agencies, putting their work “under a cloud”.

FILE PHOTO - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waits for the arrival of Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg during her ceremonial reception in New Delhi, India, January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

A statement signed by 108 academics from India and other countries, released late on Thursday, comes weeks before an election in which the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a second term.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has faced criticism from opposition parties for suppressing the release of jobs data and for having allegedly manipulated economic growth figures to show the economy having performed better under previous governments.

The acting chairman and another member of the body that reviewed the jobs data resigned in January, alleging interference by other state agencies.

The statement from the academics said economic statistics are vital for policy-making and it is imperative that agencies associated with their collection and dissemination are not subject to political interference and enjoy total credibility.

Indian statistics and the institutions associated with them have “come under a cloud for being influenced and indeed even controlled by political considerations,” it added.

The statement criticized NITI Aayog - a government think-tank - for picking what growth data sets to use last year, noting the body had “hitherto no expertise in statistical data collection.”

Amitabh Kant, the CEO of the NITI Aayog, denied the criticism. “There is no question of interference” in the handling of the jobs data, he said.

Rohit Azad, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who signed the statement, said data should be “taken in an academic spirit” and not be taken as an attack.

“Whichever way the elections go, the assertions from the academic side should continue that you can’t mess with statistics,” he said. “If the data doesn’t show your government working, you don’t suppress it.”

Reporting by Swati Bhat and Manoj Kumar; Editing by Richard Borsuk