Why has India's national census been delayed

The present delay in conducting the national census, when even some of our South Asian neighbours have conducted theirs, despite covid difficulties, is cause for concern.

Ajit Ranade Jan 11, 2023
National Statistical Office (NSO)

India has had a tradition of conducting a national census every ten years for more than a century. It is one of the few countries in the world, not just among developing ones, to have had and maintained this hallowed tradition. The data that is collected is fairly authentic, and the exercise is done with a great deal of integrity.  Research using India’s census data has produced thousands of doctorates, new insights into historic policies (both blunders and successes), and assisted in various fields, and areas besides which the census data has also provided a reliable economic history of the nation. The decadal census not only captures increases in population, households, and family units but also gives detailed granular data on the distribution of age, literacy, fertility and migration.

The census can also throw light on economic status indicators such as employment and income, although the latter is in the domain of the National Statistical Office (NSO). The conduct of census is under the Registrar General of India, which is under the Home Ministry, whereas the NSO is under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI).  

The 2021 census of India was to be carried out in two phases, the first is the counting of dwellings and houses, and the second is an enumeration of the population. The government notified its intent via a gazette in March 2019 of conducting the once-in-a-decade census. Before a census exercise commences, it is important to freeze the jurisdictional limits such as towns, villages, districts and census towns. The first phase was to be conducted from April to September 2020, and the second phase thereafter, so that by mid-2021 the preliminary numbers would be ready for release. The pandemic upset this timetable. 

Put off by four years

Initially, the freezing of boundaries was postponed till the end of 2020, and then again till the end of 2021. There have been three postponements since then, and the latest notice from the Registrar General of India (which is under the Home Ministry) says that the deadline for freezing of boundaries is extended to the end of June 2023.  Given that it takes about ten or eleven months for the census exercise to be properly conducted, it could interfere with the national elections due to be held in April or May 2024. Effectively it thus appears that the 2021 census has been put off by four years, using the pandemic and vaccination drive as an alibi. It will be difficult to conduct the census unless a much shortened and hence imperfect method is used between July 2023 and March 2024. But that is unlikely.

This has huge consequences. Firstly, the National Food Security Act mandates that 75 percent of rural, and 50 percent of urban households be covered by the Act. The government recently made NFSA entitlement free for 81 crore people. But this number is based on the 2011 census. Population projections till 2022, suggest that the number is short by at least 10 crore. That has serious implications for the food security and nutrition status of a large number of households, especially children. Secondly, various other government schemes, like pensions for the elderly (National Social Assistance Program) could miss their target by a huge margin since accurate census estimates are not available. The budgeting for these programs needs to have an accurate estimate of the size of the beneficiaries.

Thirdly, India badly needs accurate information about migrants. A migrant is defined in the census as one who works in a place different from the place of birth. How many migrants are there? How many seasonal and how many long-term? The covid lockdown revealed lakhs (or maybe crores) of people who were migrant city workers who had to make a long trek back to their villages on foot.  Only a proper and updated census can throw light on the true migrant picture. Fourth, is the assessment of various schemes and programs of the government. What is the status of the Prime Minister’s Awas (housing) Yojana? How many toilets built under Swachh Bharat are functioning? What is the status of piped water supply to households? Thousands of such questions can be answered when we analyse granular data from the census. The census is not a substitute for a government audit or a social audit. But since its data is authentic and verifiable, it can throw an effective spotlight and serves as a tool for ensuring accountability from the government.

Overhaul needed

That is why the 2001 report of the Rangarajan Commission report on an overhaul of India’s statistical system is very important. It has recommended the establishment of a permanent commission on statistics to serve as a nodal and empowered body, answerable to Parliament and not to the government.  That is still an unfinished business in spirit at least. An empowered  National Statistical Commission (NSC) would work in coordination with the Registrar General of India (RGI) who is responsible for the census and is under the Home Ministry.

Credible, authentic data is like a public good. Hence its collection requires a great deal of integrity, and also regularity and predictability. A lot of public and private planning as well as economic activity depends on public data, be it on population, GDP, consumption, movement of migrants or distribution of income and wealth. A few years ago, the detailed survey-based data on consumer expenditure, conducted under the authority of the NSC was suppressed. In protest or otherwise, all members of the NSC resigned. Now the NSC has been reconstituted. But this is the reason for the disquiet. The basis for the authenticity and reliability of public data, be it census or economy is the trust people place in the bodies entrusted with collecting the data. Any delay or abrupt suppression is cause for distrust. Even if there are imperfections it is best to release the data for the public at large, and experts to analyse and dissect it.  

The present delay in conducting the national census, when even some of our South Asian neighbours have conducted theirs, despite covid difficulties, is cause for concern. It is best if the government finds a way of shortening the process, using modern digital techniques to quickly and in real-time triangulate and validate the data, and release preliminary data into the public domain at the earliest.

(The writer is a noted economist. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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