New Delhi: For the first time, the census to identify below poverty line (BPL) families will be conducted using hand-held electronic devices.

The initiative of the rural development ministry is expected to reduce scope for error and expedite the census process.

The identification of BPL households is critical for individuals to be eligible for welfare programmes such as getting subsidized foodgrains, and any method that does this accurately could increase the efficiency of these programmes, ensuring bang for the government’s buck.

The devices are being assembled by state-owned Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL).

“We have ordered around six lakh hand-held devices from BEL for the BPL census," said B.K. Sinha, secretary, rural development, adding that the ministry will approach the Union cabinet with a proposal for beginning the census either in June or July.

As per the present plan, once the census is completed, the devices will be distributed to village councils, which in turn will allocate them to students in rural schools.

Digital data collection would enable the government link the BPL list with the national population register (NPR), according to Pronab Sen, principal adviser to the Planning Commission and former chief statistician of India.

Created along with the Census 2011, NPR will also collect biometric data, besides other demographic details, and store it in a central database.

Sen said the hand-held devices will be pre-fed with NPR data so that there is no duplication. “It’s an accurate way of doing it as the additional data for BPL census can just be fed alongside the information already available," he said.

While the Planning Commission, India’s apex planning body, estimates the level of poverty, the census to identify BPL households is conducted by the rural development ministry.

The ministry decided to revisit the existing method of conducting the census and undertook a pilot project across the country in August-September. The procedure for the pilot was arrived at after consultation with state governments that had been allowed to suggest the criteria for identification to overcome the limitations of a one-size-fits-all approach. The pilot covering 90,000 villages was conducted on paper using standardized forms.

The BPL card is used to obtain benefits under the government’s poverty alleviation programmes as well as gain access to cheap foodgrains from the public distribution system, subsidized health insurance and scholarships.

The Planning Commission’s estimate puts the number of BPL families at 62.5 million, while state governments say the number is closer to 107 million. The BPL census is already being clubbed with the caste census, after the home ministry has given a green signal to the proposal.

“It’s a fantastic idea," a government official said. “The electronic devices will capture the data and could directly upload it to the central database." The official, however, criticized the way the devices are being procured.

“If each department begins to procure its own devices, it will prove to be a very expensive proposition for the exchequer," the official said, requesting anonymity. “Moreover, technology is changing very rapidly, turning the devices obsolete in a very short period of time."

The official added that one way of doing it was to ask the department of information technology, which has already put in place a network of 100,000 common service centres across the country, to do the job.

BEL declined to share details of the project.