Niti Aayog: Learning to lie or does it see only half-full glasses?

While the Niti Ayog last week claimed a record 23-times jump in digital transactions after demonetisation, RBI data now exposes the bluff. The increase was just 1.23 times

Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint via Getty Images
Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint via Getty Images
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NH Web Desk

Three-year-old Niti Aayog, which is presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favourite economist Arvind Panagriya and with his favourite bureaucrat Amitabh Kant as the CEO, seems to have dragged the PM into a major controversy.

On April 14, the Prime Minister tweeted a report in The Indian Express based on a statement issued by Niti Aayog. The report indicated that following demonetisation there was a dramatic spurt in digital transactions, which recorded a 23-fold increase in just four months.

The Niti Aayog itself approvingly retweeted another report by IANS repeating the claim.

But the hyper-active body has completely ignored a report in The Times of India which called the Aayog’s bluff. On April 15, ToI contacted the CEO with the query that the claim seemed highly exaggerated. Amitabh Kant, confident and as brazen as ever, told the newspaper: “The numbers have been reconciled and double-checked by our IT department.”

On April 17, a team member in Niti Aayog told the newspaper that there could have been a ‘typographical error’ and that they would look into it.

The ToI report then informs that the newspaper contacted Anna Roy, Advisor (DAMD) at Niti Aayog, who candidly confessed that the numbers were furnished by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI). He said that the RBI data showed the actual increase to be much lower, she apparently replied by saying, “I agree with you.”

Incidentally, with Roy’s designation of 'Adviser (DAMD)' on the Niti Aayog website sounding very enigmatic, National Herald called up Niti Aayog for clarification. Roy’s office agreed that the acronym on the website could have been a ‘typographical error’ and it should be “Adviser (DMAD)”, which was short for ‘Data Management and Analysis Division’.

The ToI report states: “Going by the RBI data, the 23-times increase is only for Unified Payments Interface (UPI) volume and value gain and not for ‘all digital transactions’ as stated. For perspective, UPI volume in March 2017 was just 0.69% of overall digital volumes and 0.015% of overall digital transactions value.”

The report went on to add, “Digital transactions volumes, after increasing in December 2016, declined across most channels in January and February before increasing again in March. As reported by ToI earlier, this gain in March was in large part due to year-end tax payments and investments by individuals. It remains to be seen whether this gain sustains in April and beyond.”

Incidentally, Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s tweet on April 18 – three days after the PM’s tweet – only reiterates the apex bank’s data on UPI. Prasad tweets of a “magnificent jump” in UPI transactions, which saw a hike of 20% between January and March this year.

One would have expected Niti Aayog to set the record straight and at least tweet the ToI report from its handle. That the agency has not bothered to do it shows its willingness to create hype and ignore inconvenient facts and figures.

Given the sequence, it is difficult to believe that it was a ‘genuine mistake’. And even if the benefit of doubt is to be given to the body, one cannot explain its reluctance to own up its mistake. And, of course, it does not help enhance its already low credibility.

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Published: 21 Apr 2017, 3:00 PM