State of the Nation | When numbers don’t tell the real story 

The NDA government’s penchant for making tall claims has led to a situation where the official word no longer holds sanctity

Fake news, or to use a euphemism, ‘misrepresentation’ of facts, seems to be the specialisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre. Dubious information once put out in the public domain is amplified and disseminated through foot soldiers of the Saffron party through every available platform to get the message across. As a result, any refutation of the claims made is lost in the din of the propaganda machine.

While successful distortion of facts in the short run may be seen as a triumph by some public relations practitioners, in the long term it comes with several negatives. If there is a casualty in the misinformation game being currently played out, then it is the official word. It has lost its sanctity. As citizens, we can no longer accept the government’s word as the truth and nothing but the truth. It always comes with cleverly concealed riders.

The latest example of this is the fuel price cut announced on petrol and diesel. It was projected as a major largesse offered by the central government to alleviate the woes of the common citizens. A section of the media also played its part by trumpeting the Rs 2.50 cut as a major hit taken by the government.

But how big is the so-called sacrifice? Thanks to James Wilson, the Kerala government engineer, who also came to public notice as a number cruncher post demonetisation, we have a breakdown of the Rs 2.50 price cut.

In real terms, the central government’s contribution to the relief provided is only Rs 0.87! The rest of the Rs 2.50 comes from the following sources: Rs 0.63 from the state governments’ share of basic excise duty and Re 1 from the earnings of oil marketing companies. The details, particularly the share of the states, was not spelt out explicitly when the price cut was announced on October 4 since it would take much of the sheen away from the “major” sop offered by the Centre.

The government revenues from the coal blocks stood at only Rs 5,684 crore. It certainly may not give the yields proclaimed by the government press note, which in 2015 had stated that, “India has hit a gold mine with the recently concluded auction”

In fact, the government, by cleverly reducing Basic Central Excise Duty by Rs 1.50 for every litre of diesel and petrol, ensured that the burden of Rs 0.63 will come from the share due to the states. Had it cut Special Additional Excise Duty and Additional Excise Duty or even the Road Cess, then the Rs 1.50 would have come solely from the Centre.

As for oil marketing companies, they have to bear the burden of Re 1 per litre. As a result, stocks of major PSU companies fell sharply after the fuel price cut was announced on Thursday. In trading over October 4-5, Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) was down 19.9 per cent; Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) 29.6 per cent; Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) 24.2 per cent and Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) by 11.3 per cent. The total market cap loss was in the region of Rs 1.03 lakh crore.

So, what was the chest thumping by BJP’s cheerleaders all about?

Repayment of oil bonds
The fuel price cut is not the only area where facts have been grossly misrepresented. Take the case of repayment of loans accrued by the Manmohan Singh government through the oil bonds it issued. In June 2018, Union Petroleum & Natural Gas Minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, made a statement in Patna that the current oil mess facing the country was because the NDA government had to repay over Rs 2 lakh crore, including Rs 70,00 crore interest caused by the loans taken against oil bonds by its predecessor United Progressive Alliance government.

The minister said this to counter allegations from the Opposition that the Modi government had not explained how it spent the Rs 7.49 lakh crore that it collected as excise duty from 2014-15 and 2017-18. The Rs 2 lakh crore repayment that was made was dutifully reported by the media and figured prominently in TV discussions and debates.

However, the real picture was nowhere near the claims made by Pradhan. A query relating to oil bonds filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act by the web portal, Factly, which publishes public interest reports using government data, was answered by the Petroleum Planning & Analysis Cell (PPAC) under the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas last month. It revealed the following:

- A total of 17 oil bonds worth Rs 1.42 lakh crore were issued during the two tenures of the Manmohan Singh government.

- Of these, six bonds have matured so far. Four were repaid by the UPA government in 2009 and 2012.

- Only two bonds were repaid by the present NDA government; Each amounting to Rs 1,750 crore. This means Rs 3,500 crore was what was paid by the government—a far cry from the Rs 1.30 lakh crore claimed by the Union Petroleum Minister!

- The next bond repayment is due in 2021. The last of the bonds will mature in 2026.

- As for the interest on bonds, so far Rs 40,225 crore has been paid over the last four years by the Modi government. It will pay another Rs 9,989.96 crore by the end of this fiscal. The interest paid is certainly not Rs 70, 000 crore as claimed by Pradhan. This is stated by the Ministry of Finance here.

Many tall claims
As in the petroleum sector, there was much hype about the Rs 3.5 lakh crore that would be earned over a period of 30 years from the 67 coal block allocations in February-March 2015. But a recent Business Standard report by Nitin Sethi quoting government figures shows that the earnings in the last three-and-a-half years have not been quite what was projected. The government revenues from the coal blocks stood at only Rs 5,684 crore. It certainly may not give the yields proclaimed by the government press note, which in 2015 had stated that, “India has hit a gold mine with the recently concluded auction”. Many BJP leaders have trumpeted the coal block auction as a grand success although one does not hear much on that now.

Add to that a recent report released by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, which notes that rate of unemployment is at the highest in the last two decades. The study, based on data from the National Sample Survey Office, the Employment-Unemployment Survey (EUS) of the Labour Bureau and the Bombay Stock Exchange-Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (BSE-CMIE), says that unemployment rate has been climbing. “Unemployment levels have been steadily rising, and after several years of staying around 2-3 per cent, the headline rate of unemployment reached 5 per cent in 2015, with youth unemployment being a very high 16 per cent,’ states the report. This finding goes against the government’s claim this year that Rs 1.2 crore jobs were created in the 10 months prior to June 2018 - a figure that has been widely contested.

All these instances represent the tip of the iceberg. If one were to fact check the claims made by the government, several aberrations, half-truths and outright falsehoods will come to light. From demonetisation, fighting black money, Aadhaar, promoting crony capitalists, bank Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures to the Rafale deal, the list is long and leaves the average thinking citizen wondering if he/she has any choice but to take the government claims with a pinch of salt. That surely is not healthy for a government which promised transparent, corruption-free governance when it came to power in 2014.

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