Later this week, the Registrar General of India (RGI) will unveil the first flush of its findings from the 15th census. This once-in-a-decade effort is the seventh in independent India and is expected to showcase an entirely new set of vital statistics, consistent with the ongoing social and economic transformation of the country and something that should enthuse demographers and policy planners alike.
Expectations are that the array of socio-economic data will show the biggest jump ever in literacy levels, a reversal of the worrying decline in the sex ratio witnessed in the last census, and an enhanced trend in urbanization across the country— something that is apparent anecdotally.
All of these have implications for public policy, especially now that it has assumed a tone of empowering through entitlement—whether it be the rural employment guarantee scheme or the proposed reservation for women in legislatures and the food security legislation.
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This year, like with every census earlier, the authorities have introduced several tweaks in the technology and the process through which they collect the data. This is what has enabled the RGI to fast-track data dissemination; while the bulk of the detailed data will come out later, the provisional, national and state-wise population numbers are being made available a month after the enumeration concluded on 1 March.
Census 2011 was conducted in two phases. In the first round, in April-September, the personnel identified buildings, census homes and households, and collected basic information such as the amenities (electricity, toilets, water and so on) that are available. In the second round, which took place on 9-28 February, each person in the country was enumerated, including those resident in the 240 million households as well as the homeless.
By any measure, it is a compelling effort, all the more given that the RGI has done it without a stop since 1872. It is an operation that has to map more than one billion people, spanning 28 states and seven Union territories, 7,742 towns and 608,786 villages, using questionnaires drafted in 18 languages, and involving 2.7 million personnel.
Besides the good news that literacy levels in the country are up, the big news will be about the improvement in the gender balance. Sociologists will be keenly looking out for the demographic data pertaining to the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group. It had dropped alarmingly from 945 girls (close to the accepted average) per 1,000 men in the 1991 census to 927 in 2001 for the country as a whole; in several districts spread across northern India, the count of girls fell below 900. This was perceived to be a reflection of the pernicious practice of female infanticide.
It will be, as Ravinder Kaur, who teaches sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, points out, something that will also be watched very closely by activists campaigning against “missing daughters”. Betting that the sex ratio would improve, she argued in an op-ed piece published in The Indian Express newspaper on 10 February that it reflects a new social dynamic.
“Daughters are now more likely to provide valuable support to ageing parents. This powerful mix most likely has changed the entire dynamic of sex selection. Girls have increased in value and, therefore, their elimination has diminished in appeal.”
Another element of the gender imbalance story, which, however, will come out only in the later rounds of data released by the RGI, is female participation in the workforce. Anecdotally, we believe it has improved, so the big question is whether the statistics will support this hunch; and also, the quality of their participation in the workforce.
If indeed, as anticipated by experts, all expectations hold true, then clearly we are looking at a new India. Economically, the country, riding on progressive policy liberalization since the early 1980s, has already crossed a threshold and is now poised to become a $2 trillion economy. With 50% of the country less than 35 years of age, it is only logical to assume that the social and economic change is poised to accelerate.
What has been missing in this heady mix has been the politics. So the big question is whether Indian polity will change gears to meet expectations. The events in the last week of the budget session of Parliament hardly inspire hope.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org