The Hindu Editorial Analysis
09 March 2020

1) House matters: on restoring democratic majesty of Parliament


  • CONTEXT:
  • The government’s stubborn refusal to allow an immediate discussion on Delhi’s communal conflagration, in February, as demanded by the Opposition, has brought Parliament to a gridlock.
  • The violence, that claimed more than 50 lives, took place when the Budget session was on a 15-day recess.

  • HOSTILITY:
  • The altercation over a suitable timing for a discussion on the issue has heightened the hostility between the treasury benches and the Opposition.
  • The government took the position that the discussion could be allowed only after the situation calms down further.
  • Outnumbered and denied a hearing, Congress members resorted to disruptive tactics which led to the suspension of seven of them for the rest of the session.
  • The punishment is perhaps too harsh — in the puzzling parallel drawn by the party leader, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, like sending a pickpocket to the gallows.
  • Speaker Om Birla has stayed away for three days, upset over the behavior of MPs and also over the hurried decision in his absence to suspend the seven.
  • A discussion will take place this week, and an all-party committee announced on Friday might help resolve the logjam.
  • But a country that is facing many challenges and which requires all hands on deck can ill-afford such disruptions and suspensions.
  • Elected to Parliament in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had genuflected at its gate as a mark of respect, and termed it the temple of democracy.

 

  • APPROACH TOWARDS OPPOSITION:
  • His government’s approach towards the Opposition and parliamentary proceedings has not been in the best spirit of democracy, however.
  • The BJP has a track record of disrupting Parliament when it was in the opposition, but in power, it has taken an unyielding approach towards demands from across the aisle. Its unassailable Lok Sabha majority has been turned into a defence of majoritarian instincts.
  • The govt. must be more accommodating to the Opposition in Parliament.
  • The Congress has been denied the post of Leader of the Opposition on a technical ground.
  • The Rajya Sabha, where it has no majority of its own, has been often bypassed by arbitrarily labelling legislation as finance bills, which constitutionally do not require its approval.
  • Debates on far-reaching legislation such as amendments to the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir have been hurried.

 

  • ROLES OF INSTITUTIONS DWINDLING:
  • While the PM and Home Minister Amit Shah took charge in persuading friendly Opposition parties on crucial RS votes, there is an evident and troubling disinclination to engage the Opposition on matters of national importance as a regular practice.
  • The Parliamentary Affairs portfolio that used to be handled by a political heavyweight engaging all parties is now reduced in stature.
  • The Speaker’s traditional non-partisan role in ironing out conflicts with the Opposition is also being undermined by the combative troops on the treasury benches.
  • The Deputy Speaker’s post, which usually goes to the main Opposition party, is vacant. The government must make amends and restore the democratic majesty of Parliament.

 

2) Missing at birth: on sex selective abortion and infanticide


  • CONTEXT:
  • Last week’s case of infanticide in Tamil Nadu’s Usilampatti, historically notorious for its crude methods of killing female babies, sent a chill down the spine of the country.
  • Years after it was believed that awareness generation and targeted behaviour change communication had led to people giving up the inhuman practice of feeding female infants with the toxic milk of a local herb.
  • The news that a couple had reportedly used the same method to kill their second girl child, just a month old, had child rights activists wringing their hands in frustration.
  • Chekkanoorani, a suburb near Usilampatti, in Madurai district, was the scene of the crime, where police arrested a young couple and the paternal grandfather of the child for having fed the 31-day-old with the toxic juice, killing her.

  • DATA ON SEX RATIO AT BIRTH:
  • This is no isolated case in a nation of missing girls. Data on sex ratio at birth (SRB) culled from the Civil Registration System, show an alarming fall over the years. From 903 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2007, it dropped to 877 in 2016.
  • Four States have an SRB equal to or below 840: Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan (806), Bihar (837), Uttarakhand (825) and Tamil Nadu (840).

 

  • SCAN CENTRES:
  • Activists point out that while infanticide may have come down, sex selective abortion at scan centres continues as the preferred vehicle for parents (and grandparents) obsessed with son preference.
  • This despite the fact that the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was enacted and amended to arm the state to wage a war against this pernicious practice.

  • UNFINISHED TASK:
  • The Centre’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign aimed at saving girl children has a huge unfinished task in front of it.
  • Tamil Nadu, at one stage under the leadership of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, effectively employed the Cradle Baby Scheme to counter infanticide, along with effective awareness campaigns.
  • The cradles are still there, and the babies are coming too, but the SRB has been steadily dropping since 2011.

 

  • WAY FORWARD:
  • It is time again for the government to ramp up awareness building exercises, and this time use technology to monitor every single pregnant woman right down to taluk levels until at least one year after birth.
  • While punitive aspects might offer a measure of deterrence, true change can only be brought about by a change in attitude.
  • As Amartya Sen argued: while at birth boys outnumber girls, ‘after conception, biology seems on the whole to favor women’.
  • The weapon that the government needs to use now is one that will be powerful enough to eliminate the perversion of son preference from people’s minds.
  • Serious efforts must be made to deter sex selective abortion and infanticide
  • Few things cast a long shadow on human failing as much as sex selection does.
  • To choose on the basis of gender and eliminate new life if the gender is not ‘favourable’ can easily be among humanity’s worst moments.

 

3) No green shoots of a revival in sight as yet


  • CONTEXT:
  • The latest GDP data show that there has been an undeniable decline in the growth rate over seven consecutive quarters
  • On February 28, as per its release calendar, the National Statistical Office (NSO) put out the third quarter gross domestic product (GDP) estimates, that is, for October-December 2019.
  • It showed that domestic output grew at 4.7% at constant prices (that is, net of inflation), compared to the same period the previous year.
  • As the third quarter GDP was marginally higher than the second quarter (July-September 2019) figure of 4.5% (as reported in the earlier data released), experts in the media were quick to infer that the economy is turning around.

  • BOTTOMED OUT:
  • This was also in line with expectations of many forecasters. Hence, many concluded that the economic slowdown witnessed during the last six quarters has “bottomed out”; government spokespersons endorsed the view.
  • However, a closer reading reveals that the latest data release has revised the estimates of the first two quarters of the current year (2019-2020) upwards to 5.6% and 5.1%, from the earlier figures of 5% and 4.5%, respectively.
  • The upward revisions have, perhaps unwittingly, changed the interpretation of the current year’s Q3 estimate: the slowdown has continued, not bottomed out; hence, there is no economic revival in sight as of now.
  • Thus, we have competing views of what the third quarter performance really means for the economy, giving rise to the suspicion of the integrity of the latest revision.
  • The question therefore is why did the current year’s Q1 and Q2 GDP estimates get revised upwards? The answer is this was simply because the corresponding figures for the previous year (2018-2019) got revised downwards.
  • Many viewed the revision of last year’s estimates as evidence of lack of credibility of the NSO’s revision process.
  • Such doubts are well taken, given the long-standing debate and unresolved disputes on the veracity of GDP figures put out since 2015, when the statistical office released the new series of National Accounts with 2011-2012 as base year.

 

  • CONSTANT REVISIONS:
  • We will explain why the annual GDP estimates undergo revisions, and how quarterly output estimation is related to the annual figures.
  • GDP is a statistical construct — unlike the temperature on a thermometer — prepared using many bits of quantitative information on an economy’s production, consumption and incomes.
  • Many statistical models and methods are used following standardised analytical procedures in line with the international guideline called the UN System of National Accounts (UNSNA).
  • The GDP revision followed the latest (2008) edition of UNSNA. As there are lags and unanticipated delays in obtaining the primary data, the GDP estimates undergo several revisions everywhere (except in China).
  • GDP estimates are revised five times in India over nearly three years. The initial two rounds, the advanced estimates, are prepared mainly using high-frequency proxy indicators (which probably contain more noise than information), followed by three rounds based on data obtained from various sectors.

 

  • MORE BASED ON PROJECTIONS:
  • Since 1999, quarterly GDP estimates are being prepared, as per the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s data dissemination standards.
  • Their quality is subpar as the primary data needed quarterly are mostly lacking.
  • For example, nearly one-half of India’s GDP originates in the unorganised sector (including agriculture), whose output is not easily amenable to direct estimation every quarter, given the informal nature of production and employment.
  • Hence, the estimates are obtained as ratios, proportions and projections of the annual GDP estimates.
  • The National Accounts Statistics (NAS)-Sources and Methods 2012, the official guide for national accounts estimation, states it as follows:
  • “The production approach is used for compiling the QGDP estimates, in terms of gross value added (GVA) and is broadly based on the benchmark-indicator method.
  • In this method, for each of the industry-groups... a key indicator or a set of key indicators for which data in volume or quantity terms is available on a quarterly basis are used to extrapolate the value of output/value-added estimates of the previous year… In general terms, quarterly estimates of GDP are extrapolations of annual series of GDP.
  • The estimates of GVA by industry are compiled by extrapolating value of output or value-added with relevant indicators.”

 

  • NSO:
  • The NSO continues to follow these practices.
  • So, what can we make of the disagreements over the quarterly GDP growth estimates for 2019-2020?
  • The revisions were probably in line with the latest changes in the annual estimates (second advance estimates).
  • The press release stated: “Quarterly estimates of the previous years along with the first and second quarterly estimates of 2019-20 released earlier have undergone revision in accordance with the revision policy of National Accounts.”
  • True, there were considerable variations at the sectoral estimates after the revision, which probably contained more noise than information.
  • For now, there is little ground to question the revised estimates based on the publicly available information.

 

  • UNDENIABLE DECLINE:
  • However, if we accept the latest data, it is clear, though in an alarming way, that there has been an undeniable decline in the GDP growth rate over seven consecutive quarters, from 7.1% in Q1 of 2018-2019 to 4.7% in Q3 of 2019-2020.
  • Considering that physical indicators of production, such as the official index of infrastructure output, or monthly automotive sales, continue to show an unambiguous deceleration, the economic slowdown has apparently not bottomed-out as the government would like to believe.
  • More seriously, the quarterly GDP deceleration comes over and above the annual GDP growth slowdown for four years now: from 8.3% in 2016-17 to 5% in 2019-20 (as per the second advance estimate).
  • Further, it bears repetition that many have questioned the entire GDP revision since 2015 to the new base-year for possible over-estimation of output growth.
  • If the validation exercises of former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian and others have merit, the actual GDP growth rate during much of the 2010s may have been lower than the official annual estimates by 2-2.5 percentage points.

 

  • WAY FORWARD:
  • To conclude, India’s quarterly GDP estimates have limited primary information in them. Their revisions are largely extrapolations and projections of the annual figures.
  • Hence, one should be cautious in reading too much into the specific numbers.
  • They are helpful to discern the broad trends in economic activity, which appear grave at the moment.
  • Economic growth continues to drift downwards, from a peak of 7.1% in the first quarter of 2018-19 to 4.7% in the third quarter of the current year.
  • It probably suggests more pain ahead, as the green shoots of economic revival seem nowhere in sight.