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Lies, damn lies, and statistics

YK Alagh
Does Gujarat government fudge figures to “prove” its success story? The suspicion is, indeed, not new. I recollect how chief minister Narendra Modi, post-2002 riots, insisted for at least three continuous years that Gujarat’s annual rate of growth was 14.6 per cent. I also believed him (and his aides) till one fine day a senior bureaucrat showed me unofficially – that the high rate was being shown even for the year when it was around six per cent! At a press conference that followed – a rarity nowadays – I asked Modi about his comment on this six per cent. He looked around for a while, and on getting a reply from an aide murmured, “When you are already on a high pedestal, it is difficult to go higher.” One can possibly say, then, he had political reasons for hyping Gujarat’s growth story. He wanted to establish himself, wanted people to forget riots and see how Gujarat had already become No 1 under him.
Things, apparently, have not changed more than half-a-decade later, though he has established himself as Prime Ministerial candidate. Modi today insists, Gujarat’s agriculture has been growing double digit every year. And, this at a time when his officials told Planning Commission on June 1-2 in Delhi that, during the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12), state agriculture grew by just about five per cent per annum. There was a year when agriculture was in the negative – minus 13 per cent, followed by another year when it was “equal to zero”, to quote one official. Figures handed over to the Planning Commission also suggested that in the industrial sector (secondary sector in official jargon), where Gujarat claims to be No 1, the state grew in single digit in 2011-12 – by eight per cent, exactly. All these figures have been kept under the carpet. They are not being officially released. The pretext is, they are being “finalized”.
“Fudging figures” may indeed be a tall order. A few senior experts met in a closed-door seminar in Ahmedabad about a fortnight ahead of the Planning Commission meet. They, too, wanted to “understand” Gujarat’s growth story, whether it could at all be called a model for other states to follow, as Modi would want them to believe. I didn’t attend the seminar, but I managed a note from a source in the Planning Commission on its conclusions. Scanning through it, what struck me most was, several experts seemed to feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with the figures Gujarat government has been officially disseminating. The scholars only fell short of declaring that the figures had been manipulated, though one of them, a demographer, agreed, “Manipulating figures to suit one’s ideology is common.”
Speaking at the seminar, Prof YK Alagh, a well-known economist, wondered why Gujarat was at all claiming a double digit rate of growth in agriculture when, even by global standards, a four plus per cent of growth in the sector was considered very good. The seminar note quotes him as saying, “Though the growth rate was not 10 per cent per year as has been claimed, but a little more that five per cent growth rate also is one of the highest agricultural growth rates achieved anywhere in the world for a decadal period.” Coming from such a veteran expert left no doubt in my mind that growth figures may have been fudged even though there is no reason to do it. One official later told me, “Our data, based on satellite imagery, are different from the agricultural surveys carried out for crop insurance. The discrepancy is wide.”
Others at the seminar suggested how social sector data are being “manipulated”. Prof Leela Visaria, speaking on the status of health of children and women, said that she “relies more on data from large national surveys, as the other data sources such as official administrative data are frequently not reliable”. While she agreed that the infant mortality rate (IMR) has declined from 69 per 1000 live births in early 1990s to 44 in 2010, quoting survey data, she said, “Gujarat ranks poor in the rank in this decline among the major 20 states in India.” In fact, she revealed that “the percentage of married women aged 15-49 suffering form anaemia increased in the state, from 46 in 1992-93 to 56 in 2005-06. This incidence is particularly high among rural, illiterate, ST and poor women. This is a serious matter also because the children of anaemic mothers are highly prone to chronic and acute malnourishment. Clearly, mere distribution of iron and folic acid tablets to pregnant women is not a solution.”
Speaking almost in a similar tone, Prof Sudarshan Iyengar said the official data on retention of children in primary schools need to be checked. “Since the official method of calculating dropout rate is not specified by the Directorate Primary Education, the reliability of these data is questionable. There is no reason to believe in the official data on school retention. The reliability of the data is also challenged by other studies by scholars”, he underscored, adding, “Poor quality of education is a serious problem in Gujarat. Introduction of Gunotsav in 2009 was, in a way, recognition of the fact that quality of education is below the desired level. This annual event, however, cannot substitute regular machinery.”
Scanning through what Prof Iyengar had to say, I instantly remembered of what a senior state official told me about how the political leadership actually likes to show up cent per cent enrolment in schools by hook or by crook. This official, who has now retired, told me how Anandiben Patel, a former education minister who remains ideologically closest to Modi, called for enrolment data from different districts soon after the Kanya Kelavni child enrolment drive. “We collected the data and gave it to the minister. The minister called for a meeting and declared the data were all wrong. She split the meeting angrily. Later, she directly called for more data from districts, which she got. She added these data to the data that we had given. And what she gave us a nearly cent per cent enrolment!”, this official said.


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