Conduct the decadal Census of India, 2021
The census shapes political structures, economic decisions, development goals. Delaying it has costs
“Per capita GDP growth slows to ‘x’%”; “Risks of surge persist in ‘y’% of the population in 18-44 segment”; “Rural electrification in Uttar Pradesh still eludes ‘z’ million village dwellers”.
You read headlines such as these in your newspaper every day. Have you ever paused to wonder how the writers know the exact values of “x”, “y” or “z”, for nobody conducted a headcount of people to arrive at the numbers cited? These numbers are estimates arrived at by projecting information from a relatively small, primary data-gathering exercise correlated to the population of a region, a state or the country. And what data set was used to project from the small, or sample, data to the population? The decadal Census of India.
By the middle of the 19th century, the East India Company had taken near-absolute control of India. In 1858, the Government of India Act 1858 was passed in the British parliament, the company was liquidated, and its authorities were transferred to the British Crown. But to administer the dominion, the British government needed detailed, reliable data on the people and where they lived. After all, how could the sovereign be sure that the extortionate taxes Her Majesty was imposing on her dominion of India, had been collected from every unfortunate resident of the land?
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The colonisers knew what to do. They had been doing it at home since 1801. The exercise was called census, from the Latin censere, to assess. The newly established office of the registrar general and census commissioner launched and completed the first Census of India in 1881.
While the original objective of the Census was unapologetically extortionate, once the data became available, it found traction among a diverse range of user groups. Education departments used the data to plan for primary education. Public works departments used it to plan road networks. Planners used it to locate electric power plants and trunk lines on the grid. Railway systems used it to plan routes. As the data began to impact infrastructure, it facilitated large-scale population movements. The rapid growth of port cities, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, was made possible because major railway systems linked them with the proximate and distant hinterland.
Many legacies of the colonial raj continued after 1947. The Census of India, fortunately, is one.
Population censuses, typically with a semi-decadal (five-year) or decadal frequency are recognised as indispensable to national resource planning. The United States conducts a decade-end census, the latest round of which was completed, in spite of Covid-19, in 2020. China too completed its decadal census last year. After decadal census rounds from 1871 to 1961, Canada switched to a semi-decadal cycle.
India’s last Census exercise began in 2010 and concluded in 2011. The primary exercise, a household survey, is an enumeration of all residential premises. The census count uses this household survey as the framework for population enumeration in the following year. The household exercise appears to have been stillborn in 2020. We are midway into 2021, and there is no sign of the Census.
Why should we care about the Census in 2021?
One, we now know that the quantity of Covid-19 vaccines ordered by the government did not take into account the scale of the population. Not only do we know how many people live in India, we know their distribution by age, gender, place of domicile, family structure and education level. With the granular detail available in the 2011 Census, projected to 2021, these numbers were on tap.
Two, the political balance in the Lok Sabha is about to transform when the next delimitation exercise concludes in 2026. If the population is the basis for representation, states with the poorest record of population management, largely in the Hindi belt, will increase their relative presence massively. South and West India will be disadvantaged. We need a wider palette of demographic variables to inform the exercise.
Three, finance commissions provide guidance on the distribution of tax revenues between the Union and the states. The Goods and Services Tax makes deciding the basis of distribution more controversial. Population plays a key role in routing revenue and like in delimitation, disadvantages success and rewards failure.
Four, sectarian politics continues its ascendance in India. Many arguments made by majoritarian politicians are about what they allege to be a shrinking majority and explosive growth of minorities. The Census is the objective, all-India process for determining the situation on the ground. Not only does this give us population data, we can also use various statistical measures such as birth and death rates, fertility rates, gross and net birth rates, infant mortality and child mortality rates to determine what it will be over the decade ahead, thus bringing facts to a polarised discourse.
Five, there is talk of large-scale investments in infrastructure to restart the economic cycle. Where will these investments be directed? This includes questions such as: Is the bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai a good idea? What railway routes need to be strengthened? Where should road, riverine, maritime and air transport infrastructure be directed? How will farmers make adequate returns on their produce? What is the best welfare model and how should it be targeted? The Census helps answer these questions by giving planners a sense of who benefits, how much, and at what cost.
Six, given the centrality of television in the public sphere and its impact on politics, do the Broadcasting Audience Research Council (BARC) ratings accurately represent the viewing patterns of genres, channel or shows? Do rural viewers really outnumber urban viewers in 2021? BARC gathers data based on a continuously monitored viewing panel, then projected to the population based on the Census. If population data is inaccurate, so will the ratings be.
The decadal census was meant to take place in 2021. If we fail to do it now, irrespective of the pandemic, we will be getting into the rest of the decade flying blind.
Paritosh Joshi is a media professional with a keen interest in audience measurement
The views expressed are personal