Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 16 June 2023

India’s missing Census

Source: By Amitabh Sinha: The Indian Express

Recently, an annual report by the UN Population Fund revealed that India was all set to become the world’s most populous country by the middle of this year. It estimated that India’s population would be 1,428 million (or 142.8 crore) by that time, slightly ahead of China’s population of 1,425 million.

India would have had a far more accurate number for its population had the 2021 Census exercise been carried out. The 2021 Census had to be postponed because of the Covid pandemic, the first time in the 150-year history of India’s census operations that the exercise was not completed on time. Curiously, the Census has been pending even after the end of the pandemic and the restoration of normalcy.

As of now, there is no clarity on the timeline. The enumeration work — the actual counting of people — has traditionally been done in February of the Census year, and if the same practice is to be followed, the earliest it can now be done is in February next year.

Ten-year cycle

Census is constitutionally mandated in India. There are repeated references to the Census exercise in the Constitution in the context of reorganisation of constituencies for Parliament and state Assemblies. But the Constitution does not say when the Census has to be carried out, or what the frequency of this exercise should be. The Census of India Act of 1948, which provides the legal framework for carrying out the Census, also does not mention its timing or periodicity.

There is, therefore, no Constitutional or legal requirement that a Census has to be done every 10 years. However, this exercise has been carried out in the first year of every decade, without fail, since 1881. Most other countries also follow the 10-year cycle for their Census. There are countries like Australia that do it every five years.

It is not the legal requirement but the utility of the Census that has made it a permanent regular exercise. The Census produces primary, authentic data that becomes the backbone of every statistical enterprise, informing all planning, administrative and economic decision-making processes. It is the basis on which every social, economic and other indicator is built. Lack of reliable data – 12-year-old data on a constantly changing metric is not reliable – has the potential to upset every indicator on India, and affect the efficacy and efficiency of all kinds of developmental initiatives.

Besides, a break in periodicity results in data that is not comparable in some respects to the earlier sets.

Census schedule

The Census is essentially a two-step process involving a house-listing and numbering exercise followed by the actual population enumeration. The house-listing and numbering takes place in the middle of the year prior to the Census year. The population enumeration, as mentioned earlier, happens in two to three weeks of February.

The numbers revealed by the Census represent the population of India as of the stroke of midnight on 1 March in the Census year. To account for the births and deaths that might have happened during the enumeration period in February, the enumerators go back to the households in the first week of March to carry out revisions.

There are several intermediate steps as well, and preparations for the Census usually begin three to four years in advance. The compilation and publication of the entire data also takes months to a few years.

bulk of the work for the 2021 Census was completed before Covid-19 hit the country. It was initially proposed to be an entirely digital exercise, with all the information being fed into a mobile app by the enumerators. However, owing to ‘practical difficulties’, it was later decided to conduct it in ‘mix mode’, using either the mobile app or the traditional paper forms.

Covid struck in India in March 2020 while the housing census was to begin on 1 April. Lockdown was imposed just a week before the housing census was to start.

What has been inexplicable, however, is the failure to resume the Census exercise in 2023, if not in 2022 itself. Most normal activities had been restored by the middle of 2022 after the dwindling of the third wave of the pandemic.

Timeline still uncertain

“There must be very good reasons for not completing the Census this year, though I am not aware of what they could be. There is no overemphasising the importance of this exercise. The robustness of most of our recent social and economic data is unlikely to be of the standard we would like to maintain. And that has implications everywhere,” said P M Kulkarni, a veteran population scientist and former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Interestingly, many other countries have carried out their Census either during, or after, the pandemic. These include the United Statesthe United Kingdom, and Australia. Of course, the Indian Census is a much bigger and incredibly more complex exercise. Close to 30 lakh enumerators have to make visits to an estimated 33 crore households to count nearly 140 crore people and collect a host of other demographic and economic data. Still, 2023 could have been an ideal time to conduct the Census and prevent further delays.

Recently, the Census office released a detailed document on India’s Census exercises since 1981 to mark the 150th year of its operations (it began working in 1871). Called ‘A Treatise on Indian Censuses since 1981′, it has a chapter on the 2021 Census as well. The chapter, which represents the most recent official word on the 2021 Census, bemoans the disruption caused by the pandemic, but says the break could be helpful in other ways.

“…this situation also presented an opportunity for re-examining the instruments for carrying out the population Census through innovation and new initiatives using technology,” it says.

But even this document does not give a specific date for completing the exercise, only expressing the hope that it would happen “soon”.

The Covid-19 pandemic created the disruption in many aspects of life including the postponement of Census of India. But it is hoped that the experiences gained during the period in developing and innovating digital products in the Census organisation would go a long way in carrying the unfinished task of the 16th digital Population Census of India soon,” it says.