But How Do You Hide the Dead…

The idea for this piece came from a May 13 tweet by G Raghuram. In this tweet Raghuram talked about the Goodhart’s law in the context of the way Covid numbers are being reported.

In a 1975 article, the British economist Charles Goodhart had stated: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” This came to be known as the Goodhart’s law. Of course, like many other laws in economics, the Goodhart’s law has also not been stated in simple English.

As Carl T Bergstrom and Jevin D West write in Calling Bullshit—The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World: “While Goodhart’s original formulation is a bit opaque, anthropologist Marilyn Strathern rephrased it clearly and concisely: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

As Bergstrom and West further explain: “If sufficient rewards are attached to some measure, people will find ways to increase their scores one way or another, and in doing so will undercut the value of the measure for assessing what it was originally designed to assess.”

Examples of this phenomenon can be seen across different facets of life. A business school I used to work for had started dozens of journals and magazines, without much quality control, to drive up its rankings and it briefly did succeed. This was because business school rankings gave some weightage to research carried out by the faculty of a business school and by having its own magazines and journals, it was easier to publish. This helped in driving up the ranking. 

Now what does the Goodhart’s law have to do with the covid pandemic? As the covid pandemic struck and spread, different measures have been used to get an idea of its strength (for the lack of a better term). These include daily increase in covid cases, the total number of tests carried out in a district and a state, the total number of covid deaths, etc.

As per Goodhart’s law, these different measures have become targets. And that has led to different state governments  trying to game these measures, in order to make themselves look good and tell the world at large that they have the covid pandemic under control.

Before I get into data and news reports, let me explain this through a very simple example. For a while, the daily increase in the number of covid cases in Nagpur in Maharashtra was much more than the increase in the entire state of Madhya Pradesh.

Anyone who knows Indian geography would know that Nagpur is right on the border that Maharashtra shares with Madhya Pradesh. It is not an island. People can move between the states. This anomaly wasn’t really explainable unless one looked at the Madhya Pradesh numbers from the lens of the Goodhart’s law.

One parameter that has been managed (or should I say fudged) by different states is the number of people dying of covid. The idea as I explained earlier is to tell the world at large that they have the situation under control. The trouble is that the governments may be able to manage the data, but they can’t always hide the dead bodies.

Crematoriums across the country have been working overtime. Public health expert Ashish Jha, offered a straightforward argument in a Twitter thread on May 9. As he wrote: “During [the] non-pandemic year 2019, about 27,000 Indians died on [a] typical day. Crematoriums handle that level of deaths every day. Additional 4,000 deaths won’t knock them off their feet. Crematoriums across the country [are] reporting 2-4X normal business.”

He further writes: “So best estimate [of] 55,000 to 80,000 people dying daily in India, If you assume baseline deaths of 25,000-30,000, Covid [is] likely causing additional 25,000 to 50,000 deaths daily, not 4,000.” As Anirban Mahapatra writes in Covid-19 – Separating Fact from Fiction: “During the pandemic many of these excess deaths are due to COVID-19.”

Many journalists and newspapers have found ways of going beyond the official numbers. Let’s take the case of Gujarat. The Divya Bhaskar newspaper has reported that the state has issued 1.23 lakh death certificates between March 1 and May 10 this year. It had issued around 58,000 death certificates during the same period last year. So, the number of deaths has more than doubled this year. As per Gujarat government’s data only 4,218 deaths happened due to covid during the period. This suggests massive underreporting. The Gujarat government has called this report inaccurate.

It would be unfair to suggest that this trend of underreporting covid deaths is prevalent only in Gujarat. An April 15 report on NDTV, during the early days of the second wave, said that for Lucknow, the “cumulative official covid death count released by the government in the last seven days is 124.” Nevertheless, as “per the records maintained by the city’s crematoriums, over 400 people who died because of the virus had been cremated,” during the period. The government explained away this difference by saying that those dying in neighbouring districts and states were also being cremated in the city.

A similar thing happened in Bhopal as well. Over a period of 13 days in April, the official covid death count stood at 41. Nevertheless, a survey carried out by The New York Times of the main covid-19 cremation and burial grounds in the city, revealed that more than 1,000 deaths had been handled under strict protocols. There was a similar newsreport on Kanpur as well.  

In fact, the Financial Times, collected news reports across seven districts and found that the number of covid victims who had been cremated are ten times larger than the official covid numbers in the same districts. (Click on the above link to look at the graph).

Of course, other than such news stories, there have been a spate of photographs and videos lately, showing bodies washing up and then later buried on the shores of the Ganga river, flowing through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A Dainik Bhaskar news report puts the number at more than 2,000 bodies, with Kanpur, Unnao, Ghazipur and Ballia being worst hit. (Those who can read Hindi, I suggest please read this report).  

Journalists have also been counting paid obituaries being published in newspapers, again suggesting a huge difference between the reported numbers and the actual state of things.

As Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan told the New York Times: “It’s a complete massacre of data… From all the modeling we’ve done, we believe the true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported.”

As per the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is based in Seattle, United States, the total covid deaths in India as of May 6, stood at 6.54 lakh, around three times the official figure.

There are several ways in which the undercounting happens. In Uttar Pradesh, in order to get admitted into a hospital, the patient required a reference letter from the Chief Medical Officer “who heads the Integrated Command and Control Centres set up by the government in all districts”. Due to this rule, patients were turned away from hospitals. And if such a patient died he or she wouldn’t be counted in the covid deaths.

A medical officer in Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu told The Hindu: “We have been told orally in the meeting that only deaths within 10 days of admissions will be taken as covid-19 deaths.” MK Stalin, the new Tamil Nadu chief minister, has asked the state government officers not to fudge data.

The number of deaths also depends on how the counting is carried out. Take the case of West Bengal, where in May 2020, the “official’ coronavirus death toll… doubled in the five days since the state virtually shelved its Covid-19 death audit committee.”

Then there are cases where an individual dying of covid had not tested positive (hence, it was a case of a false negative). There are examples of such cases not being counted as well.

There are also cases of covid deaths being attributed to other health complications that individuals had when they got infected by the virus. These include diabetes, hypertension, cancer etc., which increase the risk of severe covid.  

A news report on BMJ.com published in July 2020, pointed out that in Vadodra “death audit committees attributed nearly 75% of deaths in covid-19 positive cases to other causes such as complications from diabetes or following organ transplants.”  All this is happening against the prevailing guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

People who die outside hospitals or on their way to one, aren’t counted in the covid deaths. Two thirds of registered deaths in India happen at home. In all around 86% of deaths in India are registered.

Even here there is a great deal of variation across states. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, only 34.6% and 60.8% of the deaths, respectively, are registered. As the disease spreads across rural Bihar and rural Uttar Pradesh, massive undercounting of both active covid cases and deaths, is happening.

The reluctance of politicians notwithstanding, the system itself is not geared up to count the dead, from covid or otherwise, in these states.

The biggest evidence of undercounting comes from the fact that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that the “states should be encouraged to report their numbers transparently without any pressure of high numbers showing adversely on their efforts”.

There are several reasons why the governments need to count the number of people dying because of covid, correctly.

First and foremost, people have a right to know what is happening in the country. It tells us clearly how the disease is progressing  and helps us prepare accordingly, mentally, physically and financially.

Second, as I have often said in the past, if we don’t recognise a problem how do we work towards solving and/or containing it. With regard to this, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, a former chief minister of Haryana, made an important point in a recent column in The Indian Express, where he said:

“The Union government is allocating oxygen on the basis of the severity of the second wave in the state. If the state government underreports the numbers or fudges the data, it will harm, rather than help, the state as it will get a lower allocation of oxygen and more deaths will follow.”

Third, counting covid death numbers as accurately as possible is important for the overall health security of the world. No herd immunity can be achieved if the disease keeps spreading across India.

Fourth, the correct data helps epidemiologists run their models properly and then make projections that should help policy.

It also needs to be said here that historically during a pandemic, data is not always accurately collected. As  Chinmay Tumbe writes in Age Of Pandemics (1817-1920):

“Death figures are collected on the basis of ‘registration’, which is a process that usually breaks down in a period of crisis, as observed by the health officials of those times. It leads to serious underestimation of the number of deaths, especially in poorer countries with weak data collection systems. In India, the Census of 1921 noted that due to ‘the complete breakdown of the reporting staff, the registration of vital statistics was in many cases suspended during the progress of the epidemic in 1918’.”

The mortality statistics of those who died in the pandemic that happened between 1918 and 1921, have been updated through various studies over the years.

Having said that, when it comes to data and data collection, things have improved by leaps and bounds over the last 100 years. Hence, even with the pandemic being on, data collection and management, needs to be carried out in a much better way.

Of course, all this is lost on a central government, which is primarily interested in narrative management. It is currently busy spreading the narrative that it had warned the states of a second wave.

But then it did nothing about it… Didn’t order enough vaccines… Didn’t make sure that there was enough stock of oxygen… Exported the vaccines being produced… Continued with the kumbh mela and the elections, both big super spreader events… And also told the world that India had managed to defeat covid.

In between all this we were also asked to bang utensils and eat dark chocolate. 

मिसेज़ शर्मा, मिसेज़ वर्मा एंड द रिटर्न ऑफ़ कोरोना 

शाम के छे-साढ़े छे बजे हैं. सूरज ढल चुका है. कोरोना की दूसरी वेव का प्रकोप शहर में फैल चुका है. ऐसे माहौल में, मिसेज़ शर्मा और मिसेज़ वर्मा अपने अपने घर के सामने छोटे से बगान में बैठी हुईं, सोशल डिस्टन्सिंग बनाये हुए, एक दुसरे से बातें कर रही हैं. 
आईये सुनते हैं. 
“और आप सूई ले लीं? मिसेज़ शर्मा ने पुछा. 
“अब क्या बताएं,” मिसज़ वर्मा ने जवाब दिया. “अरे परसों मिस्टर और हम गए थे. अस्पताल पहुंचे तो Compounder मिस्टर से बोलिस, आज तो ख़तम हो गया है सर.” 
“ख़तम, ख़तम कैसे हो गया?”
“हम भी वही बोले.” 
“तब तो टीका उत्सव चल रहा था न.”
“हम भी वही बोले.” 
“मोदी जी दिन में 18 घंटे काम कर रहे हैं और ई सब compounder लोग से दू ठो सुई नहीं संभल रहा है.”
“हम भी वही बोले,” मिसेज़ वर्मा ये बोलकर जैसे अटक सी गयी. 
“और आपका चुन्नू ठीक है?” मिसेज़ शर्मा ने पुछा. 
“हाँ ठीक ही है,” मिसेज़ वर्मा का जवाब आया. 
“और इशू–विशु के बारे में कुछ सोचा कि नहीं?”
“अरे क्या बताएं,” मिसेज़ वर्मा बोलीं. 
“ऐसे अभी तो टाइम भी सही था,”  मिसेज़ शर्मा बोली. 
“मतलब?”
“सबका वर्क फ्रॉम होम चल रहा है.”
“हाँ तो?”
“अरे आदमी घर से काम करता है तो थकता कम हैना. ज़्यादा ताकत रहता है ” 
“अच्छा समझे.”
“ऐसे तुमको एक बात बोलेंगे, बुरा मत मानना.” 
“अरे नहीं बोलिये, बुरा काहे मानेंगे, ” मिसेज़ वर्मा ने कहा. 
“हमारी मंझली दीदी का लड़का हैना.”
“कौन बबलू?” 
“हाँ. तो वो भी बहुत दिन तक इशू नहीं किया.” 
“अच्छा फिर?”
“फिर क्या, दवाई का आदत लग गया. बहुत मुश्किल से हुआ.” 
“अरे बाप रे.” 
“इस लिए समय रहते कर लेना चाहिए,” मिसेज़ शर्मा ने कहा. “हर चीज़ का एक उम्र होता है.” 
“ऐसे हम परसों ही पूछे उससे कि क्या प्लान है,” मिसेज़ वर्मा ने कहा. 
“क्या बोला?”
“बोला, मम्मी ऐसी दुनिया में बच्चा लाकर क्या मतलब.”
“मतलब?”
“हम समझाये, के बेटा, बच्चा कोई मतलब के लिए थोड़े पैदा करता है. बच्चा पैदा करना होता है, इसलिए पैदा करता है.”
“अच्छा. फिर क्या बोला?” मिसेज़ शर्मा ने पूछा. 
“बोला, मम्मी तुम समझ रही हो क्या बोल रही हो.”
“ओह, ऐसा बोल दिया.” 
“हाँ.”
“हम तो तुमको बोले थे, जेनयू वेनयू मत भेजो. बच्चा लोग घर से बहार डॉक्टर इंजीनियर बनने के लिए निकले तो अच्छा लगता है. हिस्ट्री पढ़ने के लिए इतना मेहनत…” 
“हाँ आप तो बोली थी. और हम भी मिस्टर को बोले थे. पर वो उधर से बोले, कब तक अपने पास बांध के रखोगी,” मिसेज़ वर्मा ने कहा.
“ऐ माँ, गाय है क्या जो बांध कर रखेंगे.”
“सही कहीं आप.” 
“हमारी बड़ी दीदी का लड़का…”
“चिंटू?” 
“हाँ. वो भी जेनयू गया था, करीब दस साल पहले.” 
“अच्छा.” 
“बस बंगाली लड़की से शादी कर लिया.” 
“अरे बाप रे. बहुत एग्रेसिव होगी वो तो?”
“हैये है कि. कच्चा चबा गयी अपनी सास को,” मिसेज़ शर्मा ने कहा.
“दीदी और जीजाजी आपके मान कैसे गए?” मिसेज़ वर्मा ने पूछा.
“शुरू में नहीं माने थे. फिर चिंटू बोला, शादी कर रहे हैं, आना है तो आईये, नहीं तो भाड़ में जाईये.”
“बच्चा लोग के सामने आदमी मजबूर हो जाता है.”
“एकदम. हम तभी राजू को जेनयू नहीं भेजे. बोले यहीं रांची यूनिवर्सिटी में पढ़ लो.” 
“एकदम ठीक की.” 
“तभी मोदी जी कहते हैं, हार्डवर्क इस मोर इम्पोर्टेन्ट दैन हारवर्ड,” मिसेज़ शर्मा ने कहा. 
“कहेंगे नहीं. वो तो पूरा पोलिटिकल साइंस पढ़े हैं,” मिसेज़ वर्मा ने कहा. 
तभी मिसेज़ वर्मा के घर के अंदर से आवाज़ आयी. “शीला, गप मारना ख़तम करो. भूक लगी है. डिनर दे दो.” 
“मिस्टर बुला रहे हैं लगता है?” मिसेज़ शर्मा ने कहा. 
“हाँ.”
“पर पौने सात बजे डिनर?”
“अब क्या बताएं.” 
“क्या हुआ?”
“अरे छोटी बहु बोल दी है कि पापा आपका तोंद निकल गया है. अच्छा नहीं लग रहा है.” 
“ओह चुन्नू की मिसेज़ ऐसा बोल दी.” 
“हाँ.”  
“तो?”
“इसलिए, आजकल जल्दी खा रहे हैं…उसको का बोलते हैं.” 
“इंटरमिटेंट फास्टिंग.” 
“हाँ वही करने की कोशिश कर रहे हैं.”
“अच्छा.”
“इनको न हमेशा से मन था कि एक बेटी भी हो,” मिसेज़ वर्मा ने थोड़ा शर्मा के कहा. “इस लिए छोटी बहु का बात इतना ध्यान से सुनते हैं.” 
“अच्छा.”
“तीन लड़का के बाद, बोले एक बार और ट्राई करते हैं, हो सकता है इस बार बेटी हो जाए.” 
“अच्छा.” 
“पर हम हाथ खड़ा कर दिए.”
“अच्छा.” 
“बोले, और ताकत नहीं है.” 
“अच्छा.” 
“पहले ही तीन बच्चा संभालना…” 
“शीला,” मिसेज वर्मा के घर के अंदर से फिर आवाज़ आयी. 
“अच्छा तो हम चलते हैं,” मिसेज़ वर्मा ने कहा. 
“फिर कब मिलयेगा?” मिसेज़ शर्मा ने पुछा. 
“जब आप कहियेगा.” 
“जुम्मे रात को?”
“नहीं आधी रात को.”
 

India might grow by 30% early next year, but that won’t mean much.

छोड़ो कल की बातें, कल की बात पुरानी
नए दौर में लिखेंगे, मिल कर नई कहानी
हम हिंदुस्तानी, हम हिंदुस्तानी
— Prem Dhawan, Usha Khanna, Mukesh and Ram Mukherjee in Hum Hindustani. 

The Indian economy contracted by 7.5% during July to September 2020, in comparison with the same period in 2019.  When compared with a contraction of 23.9% during April to June 2020, a contraction of 7.5% looks significantly better.

Hence, there has been a lot of song and dance from the establishment and its supporters, on how quickly the Indian economy is recovering, especially when most economists expected the economy to contract by 10% during July to September and it contracted by only 7.5%. Terms like a V-shaped recovery have been bandied around a lot, over the last few weeks.

Nonetheless, India continues to remain in the bottom quartile, when it comes to economic growth/contraction of countries between July to September this year. Greece with an economic contraction of 11.7% is right at the bottom.

In fact, the song and dance of the establishment is likely to continue in the months to come and will reach its peak sometime in the second half of the next year, after the gross domestic product (GDP) figure for the period April to June 2021, is published. GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country.

It is worth remembering here that the GDP during the period April to June 2020 contracted by nearly a fourth. The GDP during the period was Rs 26.90 lakh crore. In comparison, the GDP during April to June 2019 was at Rs 35.35 lakh crore.

So, the GDP during April to June 2021, will grow at a pace which has never been seen before. If it comes in at Rs 30 lakh crore, the growth will be around 11.5%. Given that, the GDP during the period July to September 2020 was already at Rs 33.14 lakh crore, the GDP during April to June 2021, is likely to be higher than that.

At a GDP of Rs 35 lakh crore, the economic growth during April to June 2021 will come in at a whopping 30.1%. Nevertheless, this is just an impact of what economists like to call the low-base effect.

A central government which can use a contraction of 7.5% to market itself, imagine the possibilities of what it can do if the economic growth rate crosses 30% in the first quarter of the next financial year.

While, some song and dance can do no harm to the economy, the real story needs to be understood and told as well. The real GDP in April to June 2021 will be more or less where it was during April to June 2019. In that sense, we will be where we were two years back.

Hence, the economic slowdown which started in mid 2018, along with the contraction that has happened post the spread of the corona epidemic, has pushed the Indian economy back by at least two years. Obviously, this can’t be good news.

Other than talking, the central government hasn’t done much to get the Indian economy going. Between April and October 2020, the government spent a total of Rs 16.61 lakh crore. In comparison, it had spent Rs 16.55 lakh crore during the same period in 2019. The difference being, this year we are in the midst of an economic contraction.

In a scenario where the corporates as well as individuals are going slow on spending money, government spending becomes of utmost importance. Between March 27 and November 20, the non-food credit of banks has gone up just Rs 26,496 crore.

Banks give loans to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice and wheat, directly from the farmers. Once these loans are subtracted from the overall lending of banks what remains is non-food credit.

In comparison, the deposits of banks have gone up by Rs 8.03 lakh crore during the same period. This means just 3.3% of the fresh deposits that banks have got post March have been lent out.

What does this tell us? It tells us that both corporates and individuals are largely sitting tight and saving money. This is an indication of the lack of confidence in the near economic future. While the corporate executives might keep going gaga in the media about an economic revival, these numbers tell us a different story.

What hasn’t helped is the fact corporates have reported bumper profits by driving down their raw material costs, input costs and employee costs. This basically means that along with employees, the suppliers of corporates have also seen an income contraction. This can’t be good news for the overall economy.

The government’s inability to spend, comes from the lack of tax revenues, something that is bound to improve in 2021-22. Other than that, the government hasn’t gotten around to selling its stakes in public sector enterprises. Of the targeted Rs 2.1 lakh crore just 3% has been achieved. This is bizarre given that the stock market is at an all-time high-level.

Hopefully, the government will make up on this in the next financial year. Also, it can look at selling some of the land that it owns in prime localities in Indian cities.

All this can be used to put more money in the hands of consumers through an income tax cut and a goods and services tax cut, encouraging them to spend.

People who pay income tax may form a small part of the population but they are the ones who actually have some purchasing power. And once they start spending more, the chances of it boiling down the hierarchy are higher. Do remember, at the end of the day, one man’s spending is another man’s income.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Deccan Herald on December 20, 2020.

Why 2.8 Crore Indians Applied for 90,000 Jobs in Indian Railways

indian flag
The Indian Railways recently got 2.8 crore applications for around 90,000 jobs it had advertised for.

This basically means that the ratio of number of applicants to the number of jobs stands at 311:1. Further, it means that 18.7% of India’s youth workforce (people in the age group 18-29) applied for it. Or to put it a little more simplistically, every one in five individuals who are a part of India’s youth workforce, applied for these jobs.

This is even without taking any education qualifications into account. If we do that (i.e. people who have at least passed the tenth standard or some such parameter), the proportion of India’s youth workforce which applied for these jobs in the Indian Railways would go up even further.

If this is not an indication of India’s massive jobs crisis, we don’t know what is.

The argument being offered against this is that just because someone has applied for a government job, does not mean he or she is unemployed. Of course, this is a fair argument, but an incomplete one. Allow me to explain.

Let’s us look at Table 1, a table we have used multiple times before.

Table 1: 

Table 1 clearly tells us that only 60.6% of India’s workforce which is looking for a job all through the year, is able to find one. So, yes Indians may not be unemployed, but they are terribly underemployed. Hence, nearly 40% of Indians looking for a job all through the year are unable to find one. Or two in five Indians who are looking for a job all through the year are unable to find one.

Further, this underemployment translates into low levels of income, as can be seen from Table 2.

Table 2: Self-employed/Regular wage salaried/Contract/Casual Workers
according to Average Monthly Earnings (in %) 

Table 2 shows us the income levels of India’s workforce. As far as the self-employed and the contract workers are concerned, nearly two-thirds of them make up to Rs 7,500 per month or Rs 90,000 per year. In case of contract workers, more than 84% of contract workers earn up to Rs 7,500 per month or Rs 90,000 per year.

The per capita income in 2015-2016 was at Rs 1.07 lakh. This basically means that a bulk of India’s non-salaried workforce, earns a significantly lower income than the per capita income.

The non-salaried workforce works largely in the informal sector, which forms a bulk of India’s economy (as high as 92% as per one estimate). As the Economic Survey of 2015-2016, points out: “By most measures, informal sector jobs are much worse than formal sector ones-wages are, on average, more than 20 times higher in the formal sector.”

Given these low levels of income primarily because of huge underemployment, so many people tend to apply for government jobs in general, and the recent vacancies in Indian Railways are no exception to this. People are looking for a regular and stable source of monthly income. They want to get rid of the irregularity of payment that they have to regularly deal with in the informal sector.

The Indian government is a good paymaster, especially at lower levels. As the Report of the Seventh Pay Commission points out: “To obtain a comparative picture of the salaries paid in the government with that in the private sector enterprises the Commission engaged the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad to conduct a study. According to the study the total emoluments of a General Helper, who is the lowest ranked employee in the government is Rs 22,579, more than two times the emoluments of a General Helper in the private sector organizations surveyed at Rs 8,000-9,500.”

Hence, the IIM Ahmedabad study “on comparing job families between the government and private/public sector has brought out the fact that…at lower levels salaries are much lower in the private sector as compared to government jobs.”

In this scenario, it isn’t surprising that so many people apply for government jobs in India. The employment opportunities in the informal sector are irregular and simply don’t pay enough. India’s huge underemployment gets reflected in the number of people applying for government jobs.

And at the end of the day, underemployment is also a representation of unemployment and the huge jobs crisis that India is facing. There simply aren’t enough jobs/employment opportunities which will keep individuals occupied for the full year, going around, for everyone who is a part of India’s burgeoning workforce.

Indeed, that is something to worry about. And what is even worrying is that the Modi government is not worrying about this huge issue.

Postscript: Dear Reader, you must be wondering why are we still using 2015-2016 data even in 2018-2019. The Labour Bureau carried out six household-based Annual Employment-Unemployment Surveys (EUS) between 2010 and 2016. Of these, reports of five rounds have been released till date. The last report was released in September 2016. The question is, why has the report for the sixth round of the Survey not been released till date.

Recently, in an answer to a question raised in Parliament, the government said, “On the recommendations of the Task Force on Employment, however, this survey has been discontinued.” Basically, a survey that brought bad news in the form of huge underemployment that India has been facing, has been discontinued, and then the government goes around talking about lack of data.

The column was originally published on Equitymaster on April 16, 2018.

How Modi Cherry-Picked Data To Build A Positive Narrative On The Economy

narendra_modi

The prime minister Narendra Modi in a speech yesterday assured the nation that All is Well with the Indian economy, and that there was no reason to worry.

He offered data to sell his argument. Let’s go through some of the data that he offered and see what he told us and more importantly what he did not.

1) The fiscal deficit of the government has fallen from 4.5 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013-2014, when Manmohan Singh was prime minister, to 3.5 per cent in 2016-2017. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

Yes, the fiscal deficit has come down. A major reason for this is the fall in oil prices, since Modi took over as prime minister. On May 26, 2014, the day Modi was sworn in as prime minister, the price of Indian basket of crude had stood at $108.1 per barrel. As of October 4, 2017, the price was at $55 per barrel, having fallen to even lower levels during the period.

Oil prices go up and down due to a whole host of reasons and Modi’s government has almost no role to play in it.

The central government has captured much of this fall in price of oil, by increasing the excise duties on petrol and diesel, thereby increasing its earnings, and thereby bringing down the fiscal deficit. As they say, there is a difference between making things simple and making them simplistic.

2) Prime Minister Modi also claimed in his speech that the current account deficit has improved from -1.7 per cent of the GDP in 2013-2014 to -0.7 per cent of the GDP in 2016-2017. The current account deficit is the difference between total value of imports and the sum of the total value of its exports and net foreign remittances. Or to put it in simpler terms, it is the difference between outflow (through imports) and inflow (through exports and foreign remittances) of foreign exchange.

Again, this has primarily been account of fall in the price of oil and thus a fall in the total amount of dollars that India pays for importing oil. India imports around 80 per cent of the oil that it consumes. Hence, Modi’s government has had very little role to play in the fall of the current account deficit.

It further needs to be pointed out that imports are a negative entry in the GDP calculation. So, if imports fall, the GDP rises automatically, assuming everything else stays the same. Falling oil imports are a big reason for the pick-up in the GDP growth, during Modi’s tenure as prime minister.

3) Take a look at the following chart, which was a part of the prime minister’s presentation yesterday.

Source: https://cdn.narendramodi.in/economy_1.pdf

As per this chart, the total foreign exchange reserves have risen by close to $ 60 billion during the period that Modi has been prime minister. In contrast, they were more or less flat when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister. At least that is what the above chart suggests.

This is primarily because of data has been taken from the end of 2011-2012 onwards. What happens if the data would have been taken from the end of 2003-2004 onwards. Manmohan Singh first became prime minister in May 2004.

As of March 31, 2004, the total foreign exchange reserves were at around $113 billion. By March 2014, they had jumped to around $304 billion. This meant an increase of 10.4 per cent per ear on an average. Between April 2014 and September 2017, the growth rate in foreign exchange reserves has been at 8.3 per cent per year on an average.

Hence, foreign exchange reserves accumulated at a much faster rate during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as prime minister. Of course, a bulk of these gains came during the first five years of the tenure, when the forex reserves increased at the rate of 17.4 per cent per year. Between 2009 and 2014, when the Congress led UPA made a mess of the economy, the increase in foreign exchange slowed down dramatically to 3.8 per cent per year on an average.

Basically, who did well, Singh or Modi, on the foreign exchange front, depends on where we start measuring from.

4) Prime Minister Modi further said that the interest rate that the government pays on the money that it borrows has fallen from 8.45 per cent in 2013-2014 to 7.16 per cent in 2016-2017. This has happened primarily due to two reasons. The falling fiscal deficit has led to the government having to borrow lesser in proportion to the size of the economy. With the government borrowing lesser, interest rates have come down.

It is important to remember here that the government has had to borrow lesser because it has increased excise duty on petrol and diesel and captured the bulk of the gain of falling oil prices.

Also, after demonetisation, a huge amount of deposits ended up with banks. These deposits were reinvested into government securities and in the process interest rates on government securities came down.

5) Prime Minister Modi pointed out that food inflation is in negative territory. The question is, is that a good thing? Why is food inflation in negative territory? It is in negative territory because farmers haven’t got the right prices for their produce. This is primarily on account of the fact that agri-supply chains have collapsed in the aftermath of demonetisation, forcing farmers to sell their produce at rock bottom prices.

The thing is there is no free lunch in economics. The collapse in food prices led to farmers demanding a waiving off agriculture loans and that has happened in state after state. It is ultimately expected to cost the nation, in the form of state governments compensating banks, more than Rs 2 lakh crore.

6) Over and above this, the prime minister shared data on a few consumption data points. Car sales, two-wheeler sales and tractor sales have improved, since June, hence, all is well.

What the prime minister did not tell us is the rapid rise in non-oil non-gold non-silver imports, post demonetisation. Take a look at the following chart.

 

Source: Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Imports also represent consumer demand at the end of the day, even though that demand does not add to the country’s GDP. For example, every time an Indian buys an electronic good manufactured in China, he is adding to the consumer demand but not to the GDP. Of course, he is adding to the Chinese GDP because exports are a positive entry into the GDP formula.

Hence, if we remove the imports of oil, gold and silver, from the total imports number (in dollars), what remains (i.e. non-oil non-gold non-silver imports) is a good indicator of consumer demand.

The above chart tells us that non-oil non-gold non-silver imports have grown at an extremely fast rate after October 2016. They are growing at rates at which they haven’t grown for a couple of years. What is happening here?

Demonetisation destroyed domestic supply chains. Without supply chains products can’t move. This has resulted in consumer demand being fulfilled through imports.

This is clearly visible in the huge growth of non-oil non-gold non-silver imports. What this also means is that as demonetisation destroyed supply chains in India, it also led to a huge job destruction. If goods weren’t moving, there was no point in producing them either. This meant shutdown of firms and massive job losses.

Further, by importing stuff that we used to produce in India earlier, we have helped the manufacturing business in foreign countries and in the process “possibly” helped create jobs there.

Of course, this is something that the prime minister did not tell us in his speech. What he further did not tell us is that:

a) During the course of this financial year between April and August 2017, the total outstanding loans of banks (non-food credit) have shrunk. Only retail loans are growing, loans to industry, agriculture and services have shrunk. This, even though interest rates have fallen. What this clearly tells us is that a large section of the economy is not in a good shape and in no mood to borrow money and that is not a good thing.

b) As on March 31, 2017, 22 out of 27 public sector banks had a bad loans ratio of 10 per cent or more. This basically means that out of every Rs 100 of loans given by these banks, Rs 10 or more of loans had gone bad and weren’t being repaid.
In fact, five banks had a bad loans rate more than 20 per cent, which basically means that more than one-fifth of the loans given by these banks had gone bad and were not being repaid.
This is a problem that has only grown during Modi’s tenure. He and his government have sat on it, and only blamed the previous government for the mess.

c) All the so-called attack on black money has had a very limited impact on the price of real estate. While prices haven’t risen, they haven’t fallen either. This essentially means that homes continue to remain unaffordable for most people.

d) There has been almost no talk on how demonetisation and now the badly implemented GST have played havoc with the functioning and the existence of small and medium enterprises. If small and medium enterprises keep getting destroyed how is the country ever going to create jobs. It is worth remembering here that one million Indians are entering the workforce every year. Where are the jobs for these people?

e) Our primary education system continues to remain in a mess, with most children finding it difficult to read, write and do basic maths. It has been more than 40 months since Modi was elected prime minister, and nothing serious has been done on this front.

f) The non-government GDP has collapsed to 4.3 per cent. The non-government part of the GDP amounts to close to 90 per cent of the economy.

g) The growth rate of industry in general and manufacturing and construction in particular is at a five-year low. The manufacturing part of industry grew at 1.17 per cent during April to June 2017, whereas construction grew by 2 per cent during the same period. Also, it is worth pointing out here that manufacturing and construction together form 82-85 per cent of industry. If these sectors are barely growing, how will any jobs be created?

I can go and on the bad state of the Indian economy, but there is only so much time and only so much space. The trouble with trying to be clever all the time is that ultimately you get found out and more importantly, the nation doesn’t go anywhere.

The first step towards solving a problem is recognising that it exists. The economy has a problem, it is time that the government acknowledged that and worked towards it.

The column originally appeared on Huffington Post on October 5, 2017.