Thomas Piketty just can’t understand India’s strange secrecy over income tax data

“I don’t get it.”
“I don’t get it.”
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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Thomas Piketty has a problem with how India gives out data—or rather doesn’t.

At New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on Jan. 20, the French economist spoke to an auditorium packed with academics, bureaucrats and politicians on the sweeping inequality of wealth across the world and how the rise in assets of the world’s richest continues to outpace global GDP growth. Piketty, of course, is widely recognised for his work on income equality, including the bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

But his sharpest words were reserved for India—and its reluctance to part with data.

“There is extreme lack of transparency for data, especially income tax data, in India,” Piketty explained. “It is very difficult to get data from authorities and there has been a decline in publication of income tax data. I don’t understand why there is no pressure on the government to make such data public.”

“Nobody is asking for names,” he added.

Access to income tax data is critical in measuring inequality and understanding the distribution of wealth. India used to publish the All India Income Tax Statistics until 2000, when it was discontinued.

“Every time, I ask about when access to data could become possible, I am told this will change in a week or two, or in a month. But it never happens,” Piketty, who also teaches at the Paris School of Economics and the London School of Economics, explained.

India has one of the worst inequalities in income and wealth globally, Piketty added. The richest 1% in India own around 53% of country’s wealth, according to an October 2015 report by Credit Suisse, the Swiss investment bank. India’s wealth rose by $2.284 trillion between 2000 and 2015, the report added, and the share of the richest 1% in this growth was 61%.