The need for a timely census
- It’s a source of statistical information essential for a modern State. The long delay is worrying
It is worrying that India has not even started the process for the conduct of the 2021 decadal census until now. This exercise has never been delayed since India conducted its first full census in 1881. The ability to collect critical statistical information on a regular basis is an essential characteristic of a modern State. For a government that prides itself on its organisational capabilities, and for an administration that has successfully overseen the conduct of several state elections amid the pandemic, this is certainly a failure.
What is even more worrying is that there is no clarity on when this exercise will be conducted. “Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the Census 2021 and related field activities have been postponed”, the government told the Lok Sabha on December 7, 2021. While a new wave of the pandemic seems set to break now, the fact is that for six months, commercial, social, even political activity has returned to normal. HT reported on January 4 that the Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner has written to the states extending the deadline for making changes to administrative boundaries — these cannot change when the census exercise is underway — till the end of June. This comes on the back of an extension of the original deadline from December 31, 2020 to December 31, 2021. The availability of census statistics will be delayed even more.
As if the pandemic were not enough, the census exercise, as and when it starts is also likely to face political headwinds thanks to apprehensions of the census being clubbed with a National Register of Citizens (NRC) and demands for incorporating a caste-census in it. Lest some people dismiss the importance of conducting a timely census by saying that there are other ways of finding out the total population of the country through means such as number of Aadhaar registrations, it needs to be reiterated that the census is not just about a headcount. It is the only source for a lot of statistical information, including things such as the rural-urban composition, languages spoken, educational status and the number of full-time and part-time workers in India. The delay in conducting the exercise doesn’t just undermine India’s statistical knowledge base, but the credibility of the Indian State itself.