India's next census must be a digital one

The Parliament has passed the women's reservation bill. (Photo: PTI)
The Parliament has passed the women's reservation bill. (Photo: PTI)


  • A digital census can not only speed up the census enumeration exercise but also provide speedier collation and analysis

The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, 2023, the complicated official name for the Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill, which seeks to reserve one third of the seats in both Parliament and state legislatures for women, has once again turned the focus on India’s much delayed decennial census.

Although the Bill was passed into law by the Indian Parliament in just two days, its actual implementation is crucially dependent on the completion of the census exercise.

That is because the reservation for women can be implemented only after the next delimitation exercise, redrawing of electoral constituencies to take into account changes in population so that in general one elected representative represents about the same number of constituents in every constituency, whether for Parliament or state assemblies, is completed. And that can be done only if the fresh census data is available.

The Opposition, which collaborated in the passing of the Bill, has nevertheless condemned it as a ‘jumla’ (political gamesmanship) since the new law is unlikely to be implemented before the 2029 general elections.

The office of the Registrar General of India, which conducts the census exercise, has already sent a letter to States and Union Territories extending the deadline to fix administrative boundaries to January 1 of 2024. After that exercise is done, a detailed house listing exercise will have to be done, which is necessary for updating the National Population Register. The NPR logs details of all “usual residents" of a place – defined as someone who has been residing in one address for the past six months and intends to do so for the next six months. Given all this, there is widespread belief that the 2021 Census will actually be completed only in time for the 2029 elections.

While initially the Covid pandemic was cited as the reason for delay, no official reason has been given for the further delays. However, according to media reports quoting unnamed RGI officials, efforts are on to speed up the exercise, using digital technology.

In fact, as far back as 2019, the RGI had announced that it will be using digital technology, particularly mobile phones, to speed up data collection and collation. The 2021 Census will collect data in multi-mode manner, using not only paper-and-pen, but also mobile devices, for which the RBI had developed an app. In a test run conducted between April and September, 2019, 90 per cent of the enumerators opted to use their own mobile phones loaded with app to carry out the test survey.

In fact, given the near universal penetration of mobile services and internet connectivity across the country, a digital first approach can significantly speed up data collection and collation, while providing enhanced accuracy and error correction.

There are plenty of global precedents for this. The 2020 US Census was the first digital census exercise carried out in the US with mobile devices instead of pen and paper. As a result, the US Census Bureau was ablet o complete data collection a month ahead of schedule. The 2021 Census of England Wales was also carried out digitally. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, 88.9% of households in England and Wales responded online. While 11 per cent of households asked for a paper questionnaire, nearly half ended up completing the questionnaire online.

India has actually progressed well beyond the US and the UK in leveraging digital technologies. India’s Unified Payments Interface puts through close to 10 billion transaction a month, the largest in the world. While India has more than 1.2 billion mobile users, of which 50% use smartphones, the UIDAI has issued more than 138 crore Aadhaar cards, which is close to the estimated population of the country.

Of course, the exercise is not without challenges. For starters, the number of mobile users – particularly smartphone users – is not representative of the actual number of users due to the prevalence of multiple phone ownership. The Aadhaar database is also not without its problems of wrong and fake identities being issued. Besides, authorities have repeatedly exposed instances of a single Aadhaar ID linked to hundreds of SIMs. Scrubbing these datasets will be a huge challenge.

There is also the question of security. The RGI says it has put in multiple measures to ensure security during collection, storage and transmission of data. These include ensuring that data collection is done only by verified and identified users. The data collected will be suitably encrypted before saving in mobile with date & time stamping. Once data is transmitted to RGI Server, it will be scrubbed from the mobile automatically after a due date. Data access logs will be maintained and encrypted data will be decrypted ‘in memory’ for operations, after which it will not be available in decrypted form to users. It says it has also put in place disaster management and data backup-recovery protocols and taken adequate measures to prevent RGI servers storing the data from being hacked.

Much like the Election Commission has done with the voter verified paper audit trail for electronic voting machines, a system can be built to allow provide parallel paper data collection on a sample basis to cross-verify the electronically collected data.

A digital census can therefore not only speed up the census enumeration exercise but also provide speedier collation and analysis. Socio-economic data collected in the census provides the basis for policy formulation and resource allocation, not only for the government but the private sector as well. By executing a digital census, India will not only be able to demonstrate the robustness of the data infrastructure but speed up e-governance initiatives, just as the UID and JAM trinity have already done for financial inclusion and direct benefit transfer. India cannot afford further delays on this count.

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