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Decade without data – Why India is delaying Census when US, UK, China went ahead during Covid

Government policies, schemes and studies need data. For the first time, India has none to offer for the decade gone by.

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In all likelihood, India will not have its decadal census any time soon. The logjam is such that it may lead to a situation where a whole decade goes by without any official data on India and Indians. 2021 was a Census year and the Narendra Modi government decided not to conduct it due to the Covid pandemic. Now, Home Minister Amit Shah has said that the next Census will be an e-survey and carried out by 2024— it will be India’s first ‘digital Census’. But what about the missing years?

For the first time, in the 150-year history of Census operations in India, the schedule has been kept at abeyance. The last disruption was in 1941, when colonial India had to suffer due to World War 2. But even then, data collection work was done, it was just not tabulated. In turbulent 1961, when the threat of Chinese aggression was looming large, or 1971, when India was involved deeply in Bangladesh liberation, Census was not allowed to slip by.

So, what is so special about the Census 2021? The Modi government tells us that the postponement was due to the outbreak of Covid. In a reply to a question in Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai informed the house that “the intent of the Government for carrying out Census 2021 was notified in the Gazette of India on 28 March 2019. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the Census 2021 and related field activities have been postponed.” But the government has already approved an allocation of Rs 8,754.23 crore for the exercise.

Covid was indeed a great disrupter, but we must remember that during the pandemic, major states such as Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand had assembly elections. Even the Prime Minister and Home Minister campaigned in several of these states, attracting crowds of thousands. The elections themselves required several people to conduct. Similarly, after a brief hiatus due to waves of Covid, almost all public places like markets, malls, movie theatres, religious places and congregations were allowed to operate. Census is perhaps the only activity that has been indefinitely put on hold. Census operations are a comparatively controlled exercise in which enumerators go door to door and collect data. We can allow fully vaccinated and masked government employees to carry it out.

The world thinks differently than India—data is important, especially when Covid has wreaked havoc on lives and the economy.

Also read: Indian State was set up to control, not govern. Data-driven policy-making can be antidote

Why Census matters

The US conducted its decadal population census during its peak Covid outbreak in 2020—it was also its first digital census. The US Census Bureau has started releasing that data. Similarly, in the UK, various statistical departments in England, Scotland and Ireland conducted population enumeration exercises during the Covid outbreak and now these agencies are analysing and disseminating the data. More interestingly, China has also conducted its once-a-decade census in 2020 and its major findings are already out.

India is charting a different path. It leads to two questions. One, why do we need census data, and two, why did India decide to defer/scrap Census 2021?

Since 1881, India has been conducting decennial censuses. The 2011 Census conducted in February 2011 was the 15th decadal census. Defined periodicity in censuses is important because it provides all-important comparative data. In a paper, A.W. Mahatme explains that “Censuses should be taken at regular intervals, so that comparable information is made available in a fixed sequence. A series of censuses makes it possible to appraise the past, accurately describe the present, and estimate the future.”

The importance of the Census can be garnered from its stature in the Constitution—it finds place in the 7th Schedule and the Union list. Just after Independence, the Census Act of 1948 was passed and a separate office of Registrar General of India (RGI) was established under the home ministry.

The importance of census data in framing policies and managing public affairs is a globally accepted fact. The UN has underlined the importance of a census and has also produced a handbook to frame certain protocols. The handbook says: “Evidence-based decision-making is a universally recognized paradigm of efficient management of economic and social affairs and of overall effective governing of societies today. Generating relevant, accurate and timely statistics is a sine qua non of this model… The role of the population and housing census is to collect, process and disseminate such small-area detailed statistics on population, its composition, characteristics, spatial distribution and organization (families and households).”

The biggest problem that will arise from not conducting the Census in 2021 will be the lack of data. So, governments are still making policies based on 2011 data. Census provides the most reliable and time-tested data that can be used by government agencies as well as scholars of public administration, sociology, political science, demography, economics, anthropology, statistics and other disciplines. Many government and non-government agencies regularly conduct surveys, as in the case of the National Sample Survey (NSS) and National Family Health Survey (NFHS), but they have a limited sample size.

Also read: CAA, CDS, OBCs – Modi govt has perfected the art of creating big bang headlines & dithering

Modi govt on backfoot

We don’t know the exact reason for the postponement of Census 2021. It’s possible that the government anticipates organised movements or even boycotts against the Census exercise because many parties are agitating for the inclusion of caste in the questionnaire. Caste census has been a no-go for the BJP.

During the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, the BJP scuttled the idea of a caste census, despite the previous government headed by H.D. Deve Gowda agreeing to it. In 2018, however, the Narendra Modi government promised to carry out an OBC census with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Now the position of the government has changed. In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the government has said that caste enumeration is not feasible. “A caste-wise enumeration in the Census has been given up as a matter of policy from 1951 onwards and thus castes other than SCs and STs have not been enumerated in any of the Census since 1951 till today,” it said.

Nityanand Rai reiterated the same position in Parliament. Responding to a question, he said, “There is no plan to collect caste data in the next census, other than those on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” The Modi government is arguing that it is difficult and cumbersome and it could endanger the Census exercise itself.

The government took this position when many states, including Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, have demanded or even passed resolutions in their assembly that the Census should include caste. Many organisations are also demanding the collection of OBC data. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav is planning to launch a “Padyatra to Delhi” on the issue of caste census to put pressure on the Modi government. There are media reports suggesting that the government is anticipating protests by OBC activists during the Census. This apprehension also finds place in the handbook given to field enumerators.

So, what is weighing heavy on the mind of the Union government? Is it Covid or administrative difficulties? Or is it political questions related to caste enumeration that the government doesn’t want to know the answers to? It’s anybody’s guess. Whatever might be the reason, postponing or scrapping the Census will have implications on government policies. Making policies without facts and data can lead to many unforeseen disasters.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

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