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Why is Modi govt still putting off census? ‘CAA, NRC, bid to avoid another storm before 2024’

Census has to be preceded by NPR which is precursor to NRC, both of which created furore in the wake of CAA. Govt may be avoiding backlash when it hosts G-20 Summit in September.

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New Delhi: Since 1881, census has been held every 10 years in the country. However, for the first time in its almost 150-year history, there is no clarity on when the exercise of compiling and analysing demographic, social, and economic data of the population will be held next. The last census was held in 2011.

The latest exercise should have been held in 2021 but was postponed due to Covid. Now, according to a 2 January letter by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner to the states, the date for sealing of administrative boundaries — a step towards starting census work — was extended till 30 June. 

Actual work of census can begin only three months after the boundaries are sealed. During the three-month period, the states have to submit to the Registrar General of India (RGI) the data regarding changes in notified districts, tehsil town, police station, panchayat etc. Going by the RGI’s letter, census work can begin only in September.

However, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will go to elections that month. With the administrative staff getting busy with the 2024 Lok Sabha elections after that, the chances of the census being held next year also appear slim.

Also, the census work has to be preceded by the work of National Population Register (NPR) which itself is a precursor to the creation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Both NPR and NRC created controversy in 2019 in the wake of the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The work of listing of houses and updating of the NPR, which was to be done from 1 April to 30 September, 2020, was postponed due to Covid. The date has been extended five times since.

Now that the Covid situation has improved, questions are being raised on the intention of the government for postponing the census. 

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Why census data is important

“According to the 2011 Census, India’s population is 121 crore of which 80 crore people are getting food grains under the Food Security Act. But according to an estimated population of 2020, this figure has increased to 137 crore. (This means that) over 10 crore poor people will be deprived of food security if the census is not done,” economist and social activist Jean Dreze told ThePrint. 

“Data on economic affluence, literacy level, urbanisation, migration, new births, and deaths can be derived from the census data. All these are used to implement government schemes and to provide benefits of schemes to the poor. But for want of fresh data, the deprived sections of the society will continue to be deprived,” he said.

On how using old data can be detrimental, take the case of the 15th Finance Commission which was formed in 2017. The commission has been making allocations to states on the basis of the 2011 Census data. With the numbers likely to have changed since 2011, the states may be deprived of funds and, thus, fail to meet their development goals. 

“The census should be done as soon as possible so that a large section is not deprived of the benefits of government schemes,” former Union home secretary G.K. Pillai told ThePrint.

India’s former chief statistician Pronab Sen explained how the delay could hurt work in the future. “Census is primary data. If the primary data itself is out of date, there will be a flaw in the result of the sample survey…Why the government is postponing it is beyond my understanding…not only the census, but the rest of the survey data also do not come on time or are issued late, due to which questions can be raised on the credibility of our data,” Sen told ThePrint.

Former deputy registrar general K. Narayan Unni told ThePrint that the census data is used for better implementation of government schemes. It can help evaluate the impact of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or the government’s poverty alleviation schemes.

The data provides answers to questions like how many people have come out of poverty or have become poorer, or if the number of migrant citizens has increased, he added. 

“The census report itself may take two-three years after the exercise. So it is not necessary that the government is postponing the census for fear of what numbers it may throw up. Maybe the government is wary due to the initial opposition of NPR and NRC. However, it can evade a political storm by keeping the NPR and the census separate,” he said.

G-20 a reason?

According to government sources, there are political reasons for the delay in the execise as well. In September, India is hosting the G20 Summit. With over 200 meetings involving international delegations in 50 cities, the government would not want the event against the backdrop of protests by political parties over the issue of census. Political parties in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have already announced that if the caste census is not included in the census, they will be forced to march to Delhi.

Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has also threatened to boycott the entire exercise if the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are not included in the census. States such as Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh have also passed resolutions regarding the demand for OBC census. 

On the other hand, the Centre does not want a repeat of the embarrassment it faced during the visit of then US President Donald Trump in February 2020 due to the CAA protests, according to a source in the government.

“We win elections because of PM Modi’s charisma and the Hindutva plank. So why create a fresh political storm before 2024? We have succeeded in breaking the caste-based polarisation. Why rekindle it? I am not saying that the census will never be done, it’s just that the time is not right yet,” a prominent central BJP leader said.

Another central BJP leader was more forthcoming regarding the delay in the census exercise. “This will be the first census since the Modi government came into power and it will contain all the data on the benefits of government schemes in the past 10 years. The government will be put to the test on the basis of that data. But let’s also not forget that by the time the figures come out, the 2024 Lok Sabha elections will be done and dusted,” the BJP leader asserted.

No plan for OBC census

Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, then home minister Rajnath Singh had announced in 2018 to conduct the OBC census in 2021.

But the government later rejected the idea. “The government has no plan to count castes in the census, except for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which have been counted in every census since 1931,” Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai informed Parliament in 2021. “The government also filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, repeating the same thing that after 1931, castes have not been enumerated in any census.” 

It must be noted that during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule, the government was not in favour of an OBC census but gave in to pressure from allies and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in opposition. It held a socio-economic backward census beside the census but the report was not released. Back then, the BJP pressured the government to include caste count in the census.

Meanwhile, despite the Modi government’s refusal for such a census, regional parties feel that one way to tackle the politics of Hindutva could be to demand more OBC reservation — which is why Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is doing a caste survey while the Bhupesh Baghel government passed two bills in December, raising the reservation quota in  Chhattisgarh.

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

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