We need to raise the development quotient of the census

We need to raise the development quotient of the census
We need to raise the development quotient of the census


Integrating the census with statistical functions will improve its quality as well as policymaking

While inaugurating the new headquarters of the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India (ORGI) on 22 May, home minister Amit Shah made a number of interesting statements. Shah argued that the next census will become the basis for developing the country in an all-round and all-inclusive manner. Shah also claimed that there was no link between those conducting census operations and those involved in development planning earlier.

Shah’s claim that the census operations weren’t part of India’s development planning is misleading. In fact, the e-book he released at the event, A Treatise on Indian Censuses Since 1981, itself documents the extensive links between census operations and developmental planning. Past census commissioners have also documented them.

A 1994 Economic and Political Weekly article by Asok Mitra, the Census commissioner who led the 1961 census operations, records his wide-ranging interactions with scholars and planners, including the likes of P.C. Mahalanobis, V.K.R.V. Rao, and D.R. Gadgil. The 1961 census also saw a number of commissioned research projects alongside the main census. Mitra followed the innovative traditions set by R.A. Gopalaswami, the first Census commissioner of independent India and the architect of the 1951 census. The 1951 census created India’s first granular socioeconomic database.

“The most valuable single innovation of the Census of 1951 was… the tabulation of the Primary Census Abstracts for every administratively recognised village and all demarcated urban enumeration blocks, municipal wards and divisions," wrote Mitra. “This enabled every village or urban block to emerge as a separate entity in its own right for planning and development activities on the part of local bodies and the concerned administrative and fund-dispensing departments of the state and central governments."

Shah is, of course, right in arguing that the Census can be made more useful to policymakers and researchers. Digitization of census operations is one key aspect, and one that policymakers acknowledge as important. The other key aspect is ORGI’s institutional architecture.

As this column has pointed out earlier, India is a rare economy where the statistical establishment does not run census operations (‘Save the Census of India from Disruptions and Delays’, 02 Jan 2023). The recently released “treatise" on Indian census acknowledges that the value of census data is enhanced when it is used together with the results of other statistical investigations. In most large economies, the national statistical office runs both censuses and surveys, resulting in a close synergy between census and survey officials. Not in India. This has led to a disconnect between census and survey operations in the country, limiting the potential of both. Even urban area maps of the census and statistics ministry are prepared separately, with needless duplication of resources. This also impacts interoperability of official databases, posing a serious hurdle for researchers and policymakers.

The disconnect between census and survey operations in India is the outcome of an unfortunate colonial legacy. After India came under the direct rule of the British crown in 1858, there were many attempts by British administrators to bring all statistical activities under one roof. The home department resisted giving up control over census operations till the end.

During the British Raj, the census was designed to meet colonial ends. The British Registrar General, George Graham, aimed to expand the British census operations to all colonies of the British Empire, including India, to provide a comprehensive demographic view of the empire. Graham instructed colonial authorities to focus on enumerating men of military age if a full population count proved too difficult. He also highlighted the importance of having such lists for police work, historian Gunnar Thorvaldsen wrote in Censuses and Census Takers: A Global History.

The revolt of 1857 had alerted the British administrators to the possibility of a fight back against the British. It had also made them aware of the possibility of ruling by dividing. Hence, a key motive behind the early imperial censuses in the 19th century was to study the relative weights of different social groups in the native population. As Thorvaldsen pointed out, the religion question, which the British did not face at home between 1851 and 2001, was consistently included in India. Caste too was a central feature of the British censuses although different censuses produced divergent estimates.

While post-independence censuses have moved away from the British mould in many ways, census operations have remained within the purview of the home ministry. An attempt was made by the National Statistical Commission in 2011 to bring census operations within its purview. But it met with stiff resistance from ORGI and home ministry officials, who saw it as a threat to their turf.

If the Census is to be seen as a tool for development, rather than a tool for control, it must be integrated with the official statistical machinery. This would also help allay concerns about data confidentiality, and allow citizens to provide more honest responses to sensitive questions such as those relating to migration. The accuracy and utility of Census figures will improve manifold if ordinary citizens believe that it is a purely statistical exercise.

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