How to save the Census of India from disruptions and delays

Even before the pandemic hit the country, it was the NRC issue that first threw a cloud over the 2021 census. Photo: Mint
Even before the pandemic hit the country, it was the NRC issue that first threw a cloud over the 2021 census. Photo: Mint


The uninterrupted run of the Indian census was broken when the 2021 census got derailed.

Open any Census of India report, and you are likely to find a mention of its uninterrupted run. “It is remarkable that the great historical tradition of conducting a Census has been maintained in spite of several adversities like wars, epidemics, natural calamities, political unrest etc.," a 2011 census brochure said. “Very few countries in the world can boast of such a distinction."

India appears to be on the verge of losing that distinction now. The uninterrupted run of the Indian census was broken when the 2021 census got derailed. The Union government has shown no urgency in getting census operations back on track. When questioned about the delay, it refuses to clarify when the census might take place.

The pandemic is being cited as the official reason for the delay, but it is an unconvincing excuse. Pandemic-related restrictions were removed long back, and the Indian state has conducted a number of household surveys and state-level elections since then.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped countries across the world from conducting their decennial censuses, records maintained by UN Stats show. In Asia alone, 12 countries, including Nepal and Bangladesh, have conducted censuses in the 2021-22 period.

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In Nepal, the census had to be rescheduled because of a covid surge in June 2021. But it managed to conduct the census five months later. Unlike India, Nepal’s census was not ‘postponed indefinitely’. It brought out a preliminary census report by January 2022.

The census is the foundational database for official statistics and policymaking in a modern economy. Outdated census data makes block and district-level planning particularly difficult, since survey data do not offer that kind of high resolution. Moreover, even surveys tend to depend on the census for drawing up an accurate sampling frame. Survey estimates for a region or community are scaled up based on population estimates provided by the census.

The lack of reliable population figures has created a huge challenge for statisticians across the country. Unfortunately, India is one of those countries where politicians have a greater say on census operations than statisticians. If statisticians had any say, the drama around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would have been avoided.

It is worth remembering that even before the pandemic hit the country, it was the NRC issue that first threw a cloud over the 2021 census. The Union government had declared that the 2021 census would be used to draw up an all-India NRC. This was at a time when a similar exercise in Assam had led to large-scale exclusions of genuine citizens. Fearing that the all-India NRC exercise would lead to their eventual disenfranchisement, many Muslim groups and civic associations organized protests across the country. So did students of some of India’s leading business schools and universities, denouncing what they felt was a state-sponsored attempt to harass a particular community.

The vitiated atmosphere worried statisticians, who realize the importance of trust implicit in any data-gathering exercise. The trust that the government is collecting the data for public benefit, not for partisan political purposes. The trust that the data will not be used to harass respondents.

In an environment of fear and mistrust, a census might end up generating compromised data, statisticians argued. Many respondents could refuse to cooperate with government enumerators, they feared. Their concerns were brushed aside. But they were proved right soon enough when National Sample Survey (NSS) enumerators faced trouble while collecting survey data (see ‘Government’s data collection efforts stalled by NRC fears’, Mint, 3 February 2020).

The government eventually backtracked on the NRC, and surveys have resumed once again. But the entire episode highlighted how little influence statisticians have over census operations, and the extent to which it has been politicized.

One reason for this state of affairs is the unique institutional structure governing census operations. The Registrar General of India (RGI), who heads census operations, tends to be a generalist bureaucrat reporting to the home ministry. The ministry of statistics and programme implementation (Mospi) has very little role in the census operations. In contrast, in almost all G20 economies, it is the respective national statistical office that handles census operations. In most of them, there are well-institutionalized mechanisms to insulate statistical offices from the politics of the day.

An attempt was made by the National Statistical Commission (NSC) in 2011 to bring both Mospi and RGI under the umbrella of an independent statistical authority, accountable to Indian Parliament rather than to the government of the day. That effort culminated in a report by the legal luminary N.R. Madhava Menon. Menon’s efforts to bring the RGI within the ambit of the NSC faced stiff opposition from the RGI and the home ministry. Some Mospi mandarins were also uncomfortable with the Menon committee report as they didn’t want to be accountable to independent statisticians.

Menon’s report was quietly buried. But its spirit must be revived if the Census of India is to be saved from needless disruptions and inexplicable delays. Unless the census is insulated from day-to-day politics, the integrity of its data will be compromised. This holds true for other parts of the statistical system as well. The world’s largest democracy deserves clean and honest data. It has a lot to learn from peer countries in this regard.

Pramit Bhattacharya is a Chennai-based journalist. His Twitter handle is pramit_b 

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