Can obfuscation of data help in tiding over the looming crisis?

Can fake news fight the looming economic crisis?

The impact of the Ukraine war, from which India has been cushioned for some time, would be felt with all its intensity. The likely scenario that could unfold is high power prices, strained food grain supplies and general restiveness that would come from spiralling inflation. Can obfuscation of data help in tiding over the looming crisis?

There are several critical numbers that do not yet have an official imprimatur and hence are conveniently dismissed by the government as unreliable and fake. 

What about the GDP numbers? The government has been claiming that India is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. All this chest-thumping does not square with how the economy’s health is perceived by the likes of the former Chief Economic Advisor of the government of India, Kaushik Basu, who thinks otherwise. In a tweet that incurred the wrath of many noisy ruling party supporters, Basu said: “Over 2020-22, India’s annual GDP growth is .43 per cent. This places India in the middle of the global growth table”. The big question is, does fudging figures and hiding the truth help in elections and the economy? And also for how long?

Basu’s assertion punctured the claims of everyone in the government that insisted that we were one of the rapidly advancing economies of the world. What is distressing is that the government did precious little to make such important facts indubitable – facts that cannot be questioned from within or from an economist based abroad.

Deliberately, it seems, the government has created a miasma of confusion over every data point that can allow researchers, writers or detractors to ascertain exactly what the state of the Indian economy is. There is no data that can pass off without kicking off unnecessary controversy. It never used to happen in the days of the Congress. India was a proud nation that kept its books clean and was known to be a master at smartly maintaining its key statistics.

Now no one knows exactly how many people are employed or lost their jobs due to the slowdown of the economy or due to the two years of pandemic-induced unemployment. All through 2020, when migrants were walking back to their far-flung villages from Mumbai, Delhi and other cities, there was large-scale obfuscation of how many returned home safely or lost their lives in their perilous journey. No authoritative figures emanated from the government, and how the pandemic was handled was based on anecdotal evidence.

Expectedly, there was a BBC expose on how the decision to impose a claustrophobic lockdown on 1.4 billion people – the majority of them daily wagers – was taken by the Prime Minister’s office without consulting anyone of any significance. So tragic was the outcome of the lockdown, which found many migrants in the throes of severe poverty and hunger, leaders of countries like Nepal and Pakistan had to assure their citizens that they would not repeat the Indian lockdown. Understandably, these countries suffered less from the pandemic or its dreadful state interventions. 

Even on the issue of deaths due to the pandemic, the government has been coy in owning up to how many died due to the coronavirus. It has hung on to a figure of 4.8 lakh deaths, which is 1/10 of what the World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed. Government agencies deny these estimates due to WHO’s methodology, but they seem to loathe to update their own numbers. 

Independent experts believe that there may be about 6 million deaths due to the virus in the country. What is also not known is the adverse impact of the vaccines. While vaccine makers were firewalled from any criminal charge, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence here, which squares with the well-documented loss of lives in the Western world due to the vaccine. More recently, Mumbai High Court has admitted a petition from a father who lost his daughter – who was a doctor – allegedly due to the vaccine. The father of the deceased blamed the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bill Gates for his daughter’s death. There were many similar cases, but the government was giving primacy to meeting vaccination targets rather than how ordinary people react to the inoculation.

The worrying truth is that the vaccines did not really get enough time to be tested on human beings, and they were rushed through to fight the pandemic. No one is asking the question – did those areas in Africa, Latin America or Asia that did not get vaccinated fare worse than those that did? For instance, Israel, which allowed four or five vaccine shots performed better – in terms of deaths due to the virus – than those that did not get or take any? The government should have illuminated our masses rather than blindly agreeing to the findings of the legacy countries – the US and the West. 

By the look of it, the government sailed out of these crises rather safely. Despite the dodgy figures of migrants returning home or people dying due to Covid, the government continues to smell roses as a country that fought the dreadful disease competently.

The credit for the government’s success should not go to how many people were vaccinated but to how many people got free food once the country came under the sway of the pandemic. By government estimates, 800 million got food grains every month after April 2020. Since then, the government has spent $18 billion every year, which adds up to $42 billion till now. The programme is scheduled to end on September 30. If that happens, then the price of food grain in the market will zoom to an astronomical level.

According to media reports, the Expenditure Department of the Ministry of Finance is against any extension of the free foodgrain programme as it would strain the budget. This decision would not be taken by economists but by ruling party politicians who would recall the tremendous benefit free food gave them during the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. For them, the impact on the fiscal deficit would be seen as a minor distraction when the free food is getting people to vote with their hands and their feet. Being that as it may, if the government continues this free food programme under PMGKAY, then it would have severe consequences on inflation. Worse, the government would not adopt the monetary route to control the spiralling food inflation as it would dampen the economy.

The other bigger worry that the government is loathed to make noise about is the stoppage of LNG to the Gas Authority of India (GAIL) after the German government took over Gazprom Germania under temporary management, thus disrupting a long-term deal between the two companies. Media reports suggest that GAIL is buying LNG at double the price of $40 mmBtu. GAIL has an impossible target of 2.85 million tons to buy from the open market, which could pauperise the company and cause strain on the budget. The company supplies 52 per cent of the gas to fertiliser and power companies. 

What it means is that the impact of the Ukraine war, from which India has been cushioned for some time, would be felt with all its intensity. The likely scenario that could unfold is high power prices, strained food grain supplies and general restiveness that would come from spiralling inflation. Can obfuscation of data help in tiding over the looming crisis?

Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine and he is also the General Secretary of Editors Guild of India.

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