Damned Lies and Statistics

Why the Modi government is obscuring data on unemployment

31 December 2018
This year, about 25 million people applied for 90,000 railways jobs, while 3.7 million applied for 12,000 jobs with the Gujarat government.
rajesh kumar singh / ap
This year, about 25 million people applied for 90,000 railways jobs, while 3.7 million applied for 12,000 jobs with the Gujarat government.
rajesh kumar singh / ap

Narendra Modi rose to power on the promise of creating 20 million jobs. Contrary to expectations, the past four years have seen a record decline in employment creation. According to the latest data collected by the International Labour Organisation, the number of unemployed people is expected to rise to 18.9 million this year, from 18.6 million in 2018. In an interview to the right-wing magazine Swarajya, the prime minister said, “more than a lack of jobs, the issue is a lack of data on jobs.” As part of a larger mistrust of existing unemployment statistics, a task force instituted at Modi’s behest in 2017 scrapped the Employment–Unemployment Survey—carried out by the National Sample Survey Office every five years since Independence—and replaced it with a completely new data-gathering methodology. As a result, there is a significant data gap on job creation since 2012.

The EUS case is only one more example in the recent past of independent statistical agencies and data being delayed, discredited or manipulated for political purposes. For instance, the figures on the impact of demonetisation, which dealt a body blow to the economy, took almost a year to come to light, being released well after the Uttar Pradesh assembly election in 2017. Similarly, the routine procedure of updating the base year for the calculation of economic growth resulted in two divergent back series being produced. The autonomous National Statistical Commission found that growth had slowed under the Modi government, while the government’s Central Statistics Office and the NITI Aayog revised the methodology used to measure national income to conclude that growth had been slower under the previous United Progressive Alliance government. The resulting controversy raised questions about the integrity of the series, and led to claims of unnecessary political interference by the NITI Aayog.

That India has been going through a period of “jobless growth” over the past two decades is not a matter of perception. Youth unemployment was a major political plank in the recent assembly elections, and will continue to be one for the upcoming general election. Evidently, discussions on the jobs crisis have moved away from the pages of government reports and surveys, and into the streets and the political arena. Youth from three of the richest agricultural communities—the Marathas, Patels and Jats—in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana, all rich states with high levels of urbanisation and industrialisation, have initiated massive protests, demanding job reservations in the public-sector—an arena that has seen a significant decline in employment. This year, about 25 million people applied for 90,000 railways jobs, while 3.7 million applied for 12,000 jobs with the Gujarat government.

The government has argued that there have been no credible data sources on employment creation since 2014. This is because the usual metrics for measuring employment and unemployment from the NSSO are no longer available. The EUS data collection, which should have been carried out in 2016–17, was initially delayed by the Modi administration. It was then replaced altogether by the Periodic Labour Force Survey—a new system aimed at bringing out data on the labour force more frequently. But even the PLFS reports have been delayed. Despite the government’s assurance that the data gathered on the state of unemployment in 2017–18 would be available by the end of the year, there has been no sign of it yet. It is unlikely that the data will be released before the general election.

The reasons for this kind of concealment are not hard to guess. Existing data sources unanimously show that the decline in the pace of job creation under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is far worse than even under the previous UPA term. Ironically, the BJP utilised the same data sources during the 2014 general election to discredit the UPA government and build up its promise of infusing 20 million jobs into the economy.

Himanshu is assistant professor of Economics at the Centre for Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Keywords: Elections 2019 unemployment demonetisation employment-unemployment survey Niti Aayog BJP Periodic Labour Force Survey jobless growth Narendra Modi