Members of the National Students Union of India, a wing of the opposition Congress party, take part in a rally against the rise in lawlessness and unemployment under the Modi government in New Delhi last August. Photo: Sajjad Hussain / AFP

Two key independent members of the autonomous National Statistical Commission (NSC) of India have resigned over the government holding back publication of national employment data ahead of the general election.

PC Mohanan, the acting chairman, and member JV Meenakshi resigned on Monday due to disagreements with the government and functioning of the NSC, reports suggest. The Statistical Commission was not given a part in key decisions and ‘sidelined’.

Mohanan and Meenakshi cited the government withholding the publication of the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO’s) employment survey for 2017-18 as major reasons why they resigned.

They said the government also went ahead and published backdated a gross domestic product (GDP) series last year without consulting the Commission.

Impact on election

Data on employment and unemployment could have had a significant effect on the support base of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the forthcoming election.

The survey report was supposed to reflect job losses following the Modi government’s demonetization of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, media reports suggest. It would have also further underlined the government’s failure to create jobs as Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised 10 million (one crore) jobs before 2014 election.

The alleged withholding of employment data from one of the most comprehensive and exhaustive surveys carried out by the NSSO has huge significance ahead of the general election, analysts say.

Government ‘meddling’

The BJP government has built its ‘development’ narrative on jobs and prioritizing job creation was one of its main poll promises. But as opposition parties trained their guns on the PM for his failure to create jobs, Modi claimed the bigger problem was a supposed lack of data on jobs.

The latest resignations come after a string of resignations on the economic front, including the governor of the Reserve Bank of India leaving before his tenure ended. The departures have stirred more talk about the government “meddling” with autonomous institutions.

According to a Business Standard report, the Statistical Commission had approved the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) employment report in a meeting on December 5 in Kolkata. The survey report, the first by the NSSO on employment under the Modi government, was supposed to be released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

Previously, the Business Standard reported that an unreleased Labor Bureau report said that India’s unemployment rate rose to a four-year high in 2016-17 of 3.9% compared to 3.7% in 2015-16. The paper said Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar approved the Labor Bureau’s report in December but his ministry reportedly withheld it from public release.

The two resignations have left the Commission without independent members. The Statistical Commission is supposed to have a part-time chairperson, four part-time members, and an ex-officio member. However, three posts were vacant prior to the resignations.

“We thought that the commission is not very effective nowadays and we also thought that we are not able to discharge the commission’s responsibility,” Mohanan, the acting chairman told Press Trust of India after he quit. Mohanan joined the Commission in June 2017 and his tenure was to end in June 2020, seven days before Menaakshi.

‘Malicious negligence’

Senior Congress leader and former finance minister P Chidambaram said on Wednesday that one of India’s more respectable and autonomous institutions had died due to “malicious negligence” by the government, the Press Trust reported.

The Statistical Commission was created in 2006 to be an empowered agency for the country’s core statistical activities. Its functions include developing policies, coordinating and maintaining a quality standard of core statistics. The governing council of the NSSO was dissolved when the NSC assumed its role.

Pravin Srivastava, the chief statistician of India and secretary to the NSC, told Business Standard that the members who resigned had not raised issues regarding the functioning of the Commission in recent meetings. Now, Srivastava and NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant are the only two members of the NSC remaining.

Another reason cited by the two members who resigned was the publication of a re-estimated GDP figure linked to 2011-2012 prices, which led to the lowering of the national growth rate during the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government regime.

The government’s policy thinktank NITI Aayog came under fire for announcing the revised GDP data last November, as the back series data contrasted to numbers released by a panel set up by the NSC. The panel put the growth for 2010-11 at 10.8% while the back series data put it at 8.5%.

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