Our Census, Our Future?

By: Abhijit Dasgupta
Supported by a huge draw from the public exchequer, the Census needs to be examined in terms of its utility for the nation. We also perhaps need to look towards possible alternatives to make the exercise more feasible.

The motto of the 2011 Census was ‘Our Census, Our Future’. The Census authorities claim that this massive exercise was spread across 35 states and union territories; and covered 640 districts, 5,767 tehsils, 7,742 towns and more than 6 lakh villages. An astounding 2.7 million officials visited each household in 7,935 towns and 6, 40,867 villages, classifying the population according to sex, religion, education and occupation. The cost of this exercise was worked out to be about a whopping 2,200 crores. At a later stage, caste related information was to be included in the Census following demands from several ruling coalition leaders – but the work remains incomplete. According to a rough estimate, the Government of India would probably end up paying nearly 5000 crores for the next Census exercise. Do we need a Census operation on such a massive scale?

Preparation for the Indian Census 2021 would begin within a year or two. There are several questions that merit attention before this happens. Today, socio-economic data collection is not only undertaken by varied governmental agencies but also by a large number of reputed national and international organisations, which ultimately amounts to duplication of work. For instance, the unique identification data (UID), popularly known as AADHAR for which agencies are now engaged in collecting vital information, would provide identification of each resident across the country as every resident of the country is entitled to get a UID number. The primary objective, as laid down in the UID guidelines, is to collect vital demographic and biometric information to establish the identity of an individual. Since this collection of statistics is not going to be a one-time exercise but a ten year routinized process, can the data thus collected on sex, age structure, marital status, residence, etc. not be as useful as Census data?

Census data is aimed at helping the state to undertake welfare programme for its citizens. However, in recent years, the Government of India has been relying more on other sources of information for strengthening its various welfare programmes. For instance, rural poverty alleviation programme is aimed at those belonging to the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category. Before launching the programme for the BPL households the government collected information through its own survey team which helped to build an understanding on the occupational pattern, income and landholding, ownership of property, family size and marital status and so on. Census questionnaire and the resultant data on poverty-related issues is hardly likely to throw up any new findings.

Academicians have noted that on many occasions data collected by the Census were found less reliable than the data collected by independent agencies. For example, in West Bengal Census surveyors collected information on displaced population between 1951 and 1971 comprising of those who had migrated from erstwhile east Bengal to the State. However, data collected by the independent Enquiry Commission, appointed by the Government of West Bengal, showed marked discrepancies from the former. Methodological rigour for data collection was essential in this case, which was followed with great care by the Enquiry Commission. On a specialised subject, such as counting of displaced population, independent organisations can then have said to be better equipped than the Census survey bodies.

One contentious issue that came up at the time of 2011 Census was the merit in collecting information on castes. Again one wonders whether the Census Commission is the appropriate office to collect data on caste. Surveyors from the Census offices often succumb to pressure at the time of enumeration in the midst of claims and counterclaims by different communities. During the 1931 Census operations, many castes had claimed higher ranking in the caste hierarchy and the Census surveyors were forced to enter what the respondents had asked them to do. For instance, the Jogis of Bengal, placed lower in the caste ladder had wanted the surveyors to mention Brahmin against their caste status. The Rajbangshis too was another such caste which had claimed the Kshatriya status. Such controversies were resolved after a great deal of acrimonious debates. That is why sociologist G S Ghurye (Caste and Race in India, 1932), noted with sarcasm ‘…the historical role which Indian rulers had played as the final arbiters of the ranking of castes within their jurisdiction, including the ability to promote and demote castes, was now transferred by the people to the new rulers; and ranks accorded to castes in Census reports became the equivalent of traditional copper-plate grants declaring the status, rank, and privileges of a particular caste or castes’.

This story is likely to move in the reverse in contemporary India. More castes would try to enrol their names as backward classes in order to enjoy the benefits accrued under reservation policies of the nation. A large number of such cases are pending with the Other Backward Classes Commission (OBCC) which will probably take years to settle. Also, there exists hardly any doubt that OBCC is in a much better position to collect information on castes rather than the Census surveyors. Likewise, one can argue that academicians are more likely to use National Family and Health Survey (NFHS), or National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data as compared to the Census’ for analysing social parameters such as health, workforce, education, employment etc. due to their reliability and better methodology.

Some countries have drastically altered their method of data collection during the last few decades. The UK administration that introduced the Census data collection in India way back in 1872 has today decided to downsize the system. They are of the view that multiple state agencies collecting information only puts a burden on the public exchequer. Scholars agree that for many reasons the Indian situation is different from the UK, and India today is perhaps not in a position to do away with the entire Census enumeration process. However, the Census operation would have to opt for a cost-cutting exercise, if it has to remain relevant for the Indian academic milieu.

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