NITI Aayog under fire for holding press conference on revised GDP data

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The should have stayed away from the press conference where revised for the United Progressive Alliance’s governing years was announced on Wednesday, said top sources in the government.

The last evening hosted a conference by its Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar and Chief Statistician Pravin Srivastava to announce the so-called back-series data.

The new numbers show India's economic growth rate averaged 6.7 per cent during the Congress-led UPA regime as compared to 7.3 per cent under the present government. Previous numbers had put the average growth rate during the 10-year UPA rule at 7.75 per cent.

While the government has maintained that the Central Statistical Office — the agency responsible for the number crunching — is an independent agency, a joint press conference by Kumar and Srivastava sparked criticism, including by former finance minister P Chidambaram.

A top source in the government said the controversy could have been avoided by keeping out the from the announcement press conference.

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He believed that the NITI Aayog had no role in calculating the GDP numbers, which was the job of CSO. The announcement, too, should have been left to the CSO alone.

Chidambaram called the revision a "hatchet job" by the NITI Aayog, while former chief statistician Pronab Sen questioned the involvement of the Aayog.

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Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, on his part, defended the revision saying the CSO was a "highly credible organisation" that "maintains an arm's length distance from finance ministry".

To those criticising the numbers, he said: "I don't think any service is being rendered by people who choose to discredit a highly credible organisation like the CSO because its data is based on facts and the revised formulations which is a continuous exercise because every time you try and improve upon the formulations to make them more representative of the real state of economy".

Opposition Congress, however, found the revision odd.

"Now, that NITI Aayog has done the hatchet job, it is time to wind up the utterly worthless body," Chidambaram had tweeted Wednesday night. "The earlier numbers were calculated by the National Statistical Commission. Has the Commission been disbanded?" Former Chief Statistician Pronab Sen, he said, is absolutely correct. "NITI Aayog has nothing to do with tabulation of data".

"I wonder if NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar will agree to a debate the data than telling journalists that their questions are 'undeserving of an answer'," he had tweeted.

Speaking to PTI, Sen said the "integrity of CSO has been dented in the eyes of users".

"We have always had a system that data CSO brings out is completely removed from the political interference. Even the Prime Minister would get to know of the numbers just before they are released. Now to do that alongside NITI Aayog, which is a political institution like the (previous) Planning Commission was, is essentially diluting the integrity of the CSO," he added.

When a political institution releases national statistical data, it puts a huge question mark on the credibility of the data and the political independence of the statistical agencies, Sen noted.

"The credibility of CSO has been badly dented, not because of the data but because of the manner in which the release has been done," he said.

Sen, however, said he could not comment on the numbers as the statement put out "does not give me a feel for methodology" adopted in calculations.

Just months before the general elections, the country's economic growth rate during the previous Congress-led UPA regime was lowered on Wednesday, shaving off over 1 percentage point from the only year when India posted double-digit GDP growth post liberalisation and from each of the three years with 9-plus per cent expansion.

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Recalibrating data of past years using 2011-12 as the base year instead of 2004-05, the CSO estimated that India's GDP grew by 8.5 per cent in the financial year 2010-11 (April 2010 to March 2011) and not at 10.3 per cent as previously estimated.

Similarly, 9.3 per cent growth rate each in 2005-06 and 2006-07 was lowered to 7.9 per cent and 8.1 per cent, respectively, while 7.7 per cent rate was now estimated for 2007-08 instead of 9.8 per cent.

This was done after disregarding an August discussion paper by the National Statistical Commission — the autonomous body that helps in collection of data by India's statistical agencies — calculating the back series that put the growth in the UPA years using the new base year at much higher than previous figures had shown, breaching even the 10 per cent mark in two years. This was hurriedly rejected by the government as being inaccurate and a draft for seeking comments.

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"The revised 'New Series' computed by the ministry of statistics/NITI Aayog has completely undermined the NSC (National Statistical Commission), the autonomous body for deciding data transparently," Congress party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.

In January 2015, the government moved to a new base year of 2011-12 from the earlier 2004-05 for national accounts. The base year of national accounts had been revised earlier in January 2010.

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