Data is critical for democracy
On Tuesday, the government informed Parliament, once again, that the 2021 census has been postponed till further orders. The reason for this unprecedented delay — the first decadal census to be delayed since 1881 — is the pandemic. This is unacceptable. Practically all pandemic-related restrictions have been removed, and the government has been conducting activities such as holding other surveys and elections, which, in terms of nature of work, are not different from what the census will entail.
The fact that the government has not even decided on a timeline for the census means that it will take years before the new data is available to the government and independent researchers. This is bound to blindside policy making. Unlike what many believe, the decadal census is not just about the headcount of people. It is a treasure trove of statistical information on a large gamut of indicators. Because the census serves as a frame of reference for the sample design of almost all State and private sampling exercises in the country, the lack of timely data is bound to erode, over time, the quality of survey-based statistics as well.
The delay in conducting the census is not the first instance of derailment of the government’s statistical calendar. Various other surveys, including the consumption expenditure survey and the informal sector enterprise survey, have also been delayed. This raises larger questions about the commitment of the regime toward preserving the integrity of our statistical institutions. This is a tragedy because India’s statistical prowess at one time was considered the best outside the advanced countries.
It will be naïve to think that the decision to postpone or delay important statistical exercises is taken at the level of technocrats without the endorsement of the political executive. While there is no point in speculating on the reasons behind such decisions, the irony could not be greater. The present regime takes pride in claiming that the Indian State has become stronger under its watch. The timely and scientific collection of statistics is among the key characteristics of a modern State, especially a democracy. On this count, the Indian State seems to have lost some of its earlier capacity.