NSSO unemployment data: Niti Aayog’s spin no match to Jaitley’s googlies

Vice-chairman and CEO of Niti Aayog made a brave attempt to defend indefensible. Jobs have been created but shortage of ‘quality jobs’ is problem, they said. They clearly missed Spinmaster Jaitley

NSSO unemployment data: Niti Aayog’s spin no match to Jaitley’s googlies

Raman Swamy

Niti Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar and CEO Amitabh Kanth had their task cut out for them on Thursday evening. Their mission was to hold a press conference to counter the growing perception that the country was facing the worst job crisis in the last 45 years.

They had a daunting task. Not just the Opposition parties but also the normally meek media have for the past few days gone on the offensive and were asking annoying questions:

  • Why is the Modi government suppressing information about the unemployment rate?
  • Why did the National Statistical Commission’s acting chairman P. C. Mohanan quit earlier this week?
  • Is it true that millions of people thrown out of employment due to Demonetisation in 2016 are still jobless three years later in 2019 ?
  • What happened to Narendra Modi’s promise of creating two crore new jobs annually ?
  • Is the government willing to confess that it is deliberately withholding the latest data and attempting to fudge figures to mislead the nation?

Two developments on Thursday added fuel to the fire of hostile speculation and skepticism -

First, a leading financial newspaper published stark statistics from the NSSO's annual household survey of 2017-18 which the government has been refusing to officially release since December last year;

Secondly, the Congress party has been going hammer and tongs on the government’s failure on the employment front, with former ministers like Chidambaram, Anand Sharma and Kapil Sibal coming out with lacerating sound-bytes and party president Rahul Gandhi coming out with a memorable tweet which went viral saying: “NoMo Jobs”.

In the absence of Arun Jaitley, and with none of the other Modi ministers perhaps considered articulate enough for ‘Pakoranomics spin-doctoring’, the Niti Aayog duo of Rajiv Kumar and Amitabh Kanth were fielded to conduct the damage control operations.

They did the best they could in the face of unusually fractious questioning by the pink paper media. The government was not in a position to release the job figures, they said, because although data for four quarters for 2018 (from January-to-March, March-to-June, July-to-September, October-to-December) were available, the fifth quarter figures for January-to-March 2019 would only be known after two more months and without that the change in job levels could not be calculated and hence comparative percentages could not be arrived at.

Why wait for that, they were asked, why not just come out publicly with whatever basic numbers and estimates you already have?

Their reply: That would be meaningless because the entire methodology of measuring unemployment had been changed. Earlier, NSSO used to conduct sample surveys every five years but now household data is collected and computed on a quarterly basis.

Moreover, all the random sampling feedback that has been collected so far is still under process and under consideration and will only be released after it is approved by the Cabinet which will be done only after the fifth quarter data comes to hand.

The Niti Aayog CEO and vice-chairman refused to say why the National Statistical Commission’s acting chairman P. C. Mohanan had resigned along with another Commission member. You have to ask them what prompted them to step down, how can we speak on their behalf?

When it was pointed out that Mohanan had gone on record to say that he had signed and approved the NSSO report in early December itself, and that he had decided to quit because the government was delaying release of the report, and not taking the Commission seriously the reply from the Niti Aayog twosome was non-committal.

Instead they tried to maintain that as far as overall joblessness is concerned, there is no such thing - Rural Unemployment measurement is different from Urban Unemployment. There is also a distinction between unemployment in the formal and Informal sectors of the economy.

Further, the newspaper report published in the morning is based on leaked information of a survey report that has not yet been approved and therefore it cannot be treated as official.

In any case, since the whole world knows that India is the fastest growing economy in the world, it is a contradiction to say the number of jobs has fallen or that no new jobs have been created.

They argued that one has only to look at the number of Uber and Ola cabs on the streets of big cities in India - can one ignore the millions of jobs that had been created for the drivers? How can one say that no new job opportunities have been generated during the tenure of the Modi government?

Also, look at the tremendous progress made in road building - do they not provide employment? The same is the case of the tourism sector and the construction industry. According to the Niti Aayog’s estimates, as many as seven million people have got employment in these sectors.

They went on to talk of the possibility that the impression of jobless growth is because enough “quality jobs” may not have been created. Furthermore, no reliable data is yet available regarding the number of self-employed individuals, particularly those who may have taken loans under the Mudra scheme and started their own workshops and businesses.

Some reporters at the press conference tried to bring the topic back to the heart of the matter –

  • Can you please tell us what the actual unemployment rate in the country is?
  • Is it 6.3 per cent as the NSSO report reportedly says?
  • Is it correct to say that one out of every five young males in the age group 18 to 28 unemployed?
  • Has female unemployment at historic highs? Is the job crisis the worst in since 1972-73?
  • Is it true that in 2011-12 the unemployment rate stood at 2.2 per cent and that today youth unemployment is at astronomically high levels of 13 to 27 per cent?
  • Is joblessness higher in urban areas (at 7.8 per cent) than in the rural areas (5.3 per cent)?
  • Are more people withdrawing from the workforce as the labour participation rate has plummeted in the wake of demonetisation?

The two Niti Aayog luminaries looked at each other, shrugged and said: “Frankly, we do not know. We will be able to answer those questions only after March, when the fifth quarter numbers become available”.

And so it went on in circles. Rajiv Kumar and Amitabh Kanth are economists, not expert spin doctors. Arun Jaitley was sorely missed.

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