Registrar general and census commissioner Sailesh.
Registrar general and census commissioner Sailesh.

‘We have to factor in data privacy in census design and methodology’

In an interview, registrar general and census commissioner Sailesh, talks about the implications of the Supreme Court's privacy ruling on how census data is collected and stored

New Delhi: The census department has started preparations for the 2021 edition of one of the largest and longest-running demographic exercises in the world. After a series of stakeholder consultations, the department will finalize the design as well as the questionnaire and send a proposal to the cabinet by the middle of 2018.

In an interview, registrar general and census commissioner Sailesh, talks about the implications of the Supreme Court’s privacy ruling on how census data is collected and stored, and the prospects of an entirely paperless exercise, and the effort in Assam to prepare a citizenship registry. Edited excerpts:

Will there be any significant changes in the upcoming census?

We will have a unique chance to measure many new things that are happening in the country. For example, it may not be adequate any more just to ask questions like: do you own a television set? We are now far more digitally connected. People may not be literate, but they are digitally literate. They are aware of how to access a government service faster through a common service centre. Is there a way to measure digital empowerment rather than just core literacy? The nature of work has also changed and our current definitions may not be adequate. The nature of governance itself is changing. I think the census snapshot will undergo some changes so that we can capture this evolving nature. A lot of new things may emerge this time.

Beyond all this, privacy has emerged as an important issue and we definitely have to factor in this aspect in the census design and methodology.

What are the implications on the privacy front?

Census data is more voluminous than any other data set in the country. That is why we were also a party in the recent Supreme Court ruling which recognized privacy as a fundamental right. We will not give anybody any scope to steal our data. That is a definite concern for us. We will also not allow anybody to aggregate our primary data from the field. Systems have to be devised to ensure that the data that flows in from downstream surveyers happens in a fully secure manner.

In 2011, the socio-economic census was done completely using digital hand-held devices. What are the chances that in 2021, the census would be entirely paperless?

This question has been around for a while. There are pros and cons to every process, especially now, because there are added concerns in terms of data privacy. The methodology of the census — even in advanced countries — has not necessarily migrated to hand-held devices. Globally, it is still largely a paper-based exercise. Even when the United States does its census in 2020, the process would involve paper. Nigeria is going to try to digitize end-to-end using hand-held devices. We will move cautiously, evaluating all the pros and cons. But even with a paper-based census, the downstream systems could be so good that the data can still be processed fast.

Since the Aadhaar database has expanded dramatically and can also provide a lot of anonymized demographic information, is the census still required?

The demographic data in the Aadhaar database is confined to a very few questions. Some countries are indeed moving to a registry-based census where existing records in different databases will be used instead of a door-to-door census. But India is not there yet. Even our birth and death registry is not comprehensive. I think the census is here to stay in this country. Currently, there is no way to get this kind of data if you don’t do the census. It is the basis for a lot of government policies. The point of the census, as per the United Nations charter, is to recognize the rights and entitlements of each and every individual. I don’t foresee a scenario in the future where we will choose to not have the census.

Could you give a sense of how exactly Assam’s citizenship register is being put together and the likely date for completion?

It is a very complex and difficult exercise. The mandate is to essentially identify the roots of every living person in Assam to a date prior to March 1971, which is the cut-off date mentioned in the Assam Accord. Many persons will need double or triple linkages to trace their ancestry to someone who was present in the country prior to 1971. This is the complexity of the exercise because 80% of the people are children and descendants. More than 65 million documents were received from 32.9 million applicants. A person’s ancestors could have been residents of any other part of India too. Nearly 500,000 documents have travelled across state borders for verification and a small number have even gone internationally.

We are committed to making the process error-free in order to ensure every citizen is there on the list. However, I cannot give a firm date for completion. That is up to the Supreme Court and we will comply with the court’s deadline.

What happens to those who don’t make it to the list?

We have only published a partial draft of 19 million names at the moment. Once verification of all the 32.9 million applications is over, a complete draft will be published. Once a complete draft is in the public domain, there will be a mechanism for the public to submit claims and objections. The first opportunity to contest will come at that stage. After hearing all the objections, we will then publish a final list. Even after that, a person can go to the 100-odd foreigners’ tribunals that are already operational in Assam. There will be ample opportunities for the public to contest. Our job ultimately is only to prepare the register, which is happening in a fair and objective manner. The government has to take a call on what happens once the list is prepared.

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