Development | VOL. 12, ISSUE 74, September-October 2012

The Saga of India’s Censuses

Census is an administrative exercise carried out by the Government of India. It involves the collection of demographic, socio-cultural and economic information about the entire country’s population. In fact, the Indian Census is one of the largest administrative exercises undertaken in the world.

A systematic and modern population Census in its present form was conducted non-synchronously between 1865 and 1872 in different parts of India. This effort, culminating in 1872, has been popularly labelled as the first population Census of India. However, the first synchronous Census in India was held in 1881. Since then, Censuses have been undertaken uninterruptedly once every ten years. India has been fortunate in having had at its helm devoted administrators and scholars to oversee the creation of Census records. Sir William W Hunter, directed the gigantic statistical survey of India in 1869-1881 and published among other books, the Annals of Rural Bengal and A History of British India. Sir George Grierson, who wrote the chapter on Indian languages for the 1901 Census report, directed the monumental Linguistic Survey of India; Sir Herbert Risley, who was Census Commissioner for India in 1901, wrote the treatise The People of India; Sir Edward Gait, who was in charge of the Census in 1901, was an authority on caste; L S S O’Malley and J H Hutton, both of whom wrote fine studies of Indian administration and castes, were closely associated with the Census. The general report of 1951, by R A Gopalaswamy was a landmark in being a forthright plea for a population policy, while the ‘Levels of Development’ (1961) by A Mitra was an excellent regional analysis for planning.

Under the Census Act (1948), violation of Census rules is a punishable offence. The process of population enumeration in India has undergone a substantial change over time with regard to the kind of information that is sought to be tapped, specifically in the case of age and marital status with the terms being constantly redefined over the decades. The category of divorce was introduced in the Indian Census only in 1941. Caste enumeration was dropped in 1931 and created disturbances in 1998 when the idea of having a caste Census was floated again. Child sex ratio (0-6 years of age) was introduced in the Census to nullify the impact on figures due to migration of male population.

The Census of India (2011) was the biggest-ever Census attempted in the history of mankind enumerating the country’s 1.2 billion population. It is the fifteenth Census and the seventh since Independence.

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