Once more, with feeling, we have launched the biggest administrative exercise on earth. This time, the Census of India will cover an estimated 1.2 billion people and 24 crore households. At least 25 lakh officials will work on the project and use up 11.6 tonnes of paper to produce the first biometric database of people normally residing in India, the basis of Nandan Nilekani’s project for issuing a Unique Identification Number to every citizen.
The 15th Census was kicked off on April 1 by enumerating India’s best address, Rashtrapati Bhavan. The choice of date was equally appropriate. In lesser homes, enumerators routinely face situations as absurd as April Fool jokes. For instance, the first census of Kolkata in 1866 unearthed more than a thousand atheists. I shall never cease to wonder how these nameless unbelievers managed to survive in a period when religion determined one’s identity, affiliations and prospects.
I remember reading an account of an early Census — perhaps the first all-India Census of 1872 — which appeared in one of the first issues of National Geographic Magazine. Reported from the South, it revealed a routine hazard of enumeration in India — concealment. When the Indian government takes notice of you, there’s good reason to take cover. And so, back in the 19th century, the good people of Madurai and Mysore hid away their children and claimed to have none when the enumerators arrived. Who knows what they feared, perhaps a press-gang or a poll tax. Whatever, when the sarkar-bahadur heaves into sight, you run for your life.
That survival instinct has persisted for a hundred years. In 1991 in Kolkata, I had accompanied enumerators on the last night of the Census, which is always a hectic, dramatic affair. Between midnight and daybreak, when all of humanity is safely abed, the Census counts people without an address — vagabonds, the homeless and people permanently in transit, like boatmen.
Kolkata’s intriguing atheists stayed undercover that night but it was no less exciting for it. Droves of enumerators and cops in Black Marias converged on the maze of streets around the piers of Howrah Bridge, whose pavements offer shelter to thousands of sleepers every night. Arc lights were trained on them and despite soothing noises made over megaphones, the homeless sprang to their feet and stampeded with their babes in their arms, bawling about “Kalapani”. The Cellular Jail was an implausible destination but they had legitimate fears of transportation, since they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. And anyway, how soothing can a police megaphone be at midnight?
This year, the government has again introduced an element of the absurd into the proceedings. The home ministry has assured Maoists who are on the run from the security forces that they can come forward, stand up and be counted without fear of arrest. We must marvel at the self-restraint of security officers who are expected to bite the bullet while their natural prey saunters forth brazenly. I hope they take a libertarian view of their duty and, just for a second, grab any Maoists who are bizarre enough to surface. And I hope they radio-collar them before letting them back into the wild. Anyway, how eager can an underground Maoist be to acquire Nilekani’s Unique Identification Number?
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal