Herald View: Delay in conducting the Census is unfair to both people and the states

While China, US and UK, besides Nepal and Bangladesh, have conducted their Census in 2020-21 despite the pandemic, India has postponed it for the first time since 1881

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Herald View

For the first time since 1881 India missed its date with the Census in 2021, ostensibly because of the pandemic. Given the disdain this Government has for surveys, several of which have been dropped or their findings held back, it should not really have come as a surprise; although somewhat paradoxically the Government is also obsessive about data and apps at the same time and the 2021 census was supposed to have been India’s first ‘digital census’. But remarkably no country other than India appears to have missed the Census, despite the pandemic. China conducted its census on schedule in 2020 during the pandemic and so did the US and the UK. Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka followed in 2021, once again despite the pandemic. But this week the Government informed Parliament that the Census had again been postponed indefinitely, yes because of the pandemic. Since the intention of the Government to conduct the 2021 Census was notified late in March, 2020 after the country-wide lockdown was imposed, one has to look for other possible reasons for the government’s failure to conduct the exercise. What is more, since then the Government has thrice extended the deadline for the House Listing exercise which precedes the enumeration of population. It is tempting to attribute the failure to the general incompetence of this government. But one cannot lightly dismiss two other reasons, one of them innocuous and the other sinister, cited for this failure. The innocent explanation offered is that the country cannot afford to divert the army of school teachers, normally deployed as census enumerators, from the classrooms now that schools have reopened after the traumatic break caused by the pandemic. The more sinister reason cited is that the Government is still busy tweaking questions and the format to collect additional information for the National Population Register. Collecting caste details and data about religious affiliations etc. are also likely to be undergoing a makeover. What is more, training school teachers to collect sensitive information digitally and transfer such data digitally using their own mobile phones, as initial reports held, is bound to be a tricky business with the multiplicity of languages used to communicate the data.

Twitter/@Rukmini
Twitter/@Rukmini

The delay is going to impact not only policy formulation but also actual welfare schemes on the ground. The Food Security Act, 2013 provides for 67% of the population to be eligible for subsidised foodgrains. Based on the 2011 Census, when the total population was estimated to be 121 crore, as many as 80 crore Indians were eligible for the largesse. However, the population in 2021 was projected to be 137 crore and by that yardstick as many as 92 crore Indians or 67 per cent would have been eligible for food subsidies. In the absence of reliable data, over 10 crore poor Indians are being denied benefits from the scheme. Denial of benefits is not confined to the public distribution system but extends to pension for widows, the elderly and the disabled. In the absence of current data, resources transferred by the Centre to the states continue to be based on the 2011 Census, putting the states at a disadvantage. Another example of how crippling the absence of Census data can be is to be found in the Anganwadis. While under the ICDS scheme any pregnant woman and child can be registered in Anganwadis, in the absence of current data, allocations are based on old estimates, thus forcing states to put a cap on expenses. This effectively deprives those who are eligible from availing of the benefits. Census is not just a demographic head count but an important tool to collect information about education, employment, migration, transport and household amenities. It helps define and implement policies, which is why the delay in conducting the Census is inexcusable.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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