Indian Census 2011: Challenges and Perspective
by Amitabh Kundu on 12 Aug 2010 1 Comment

Indian Census of 2011 will be the largest in the world, collecting information on socio-economic characteristics including personal information linked with identity. Despite speculations before about a decade that the Census operations will possibly be replaced by massive surveys, as the task would be unmanageable in 2011, the Houselisting operation for the Census has begun from the 1st April, 2010. The actual Census operation will begin in the middle of February next year, but preparations are on for this massive operation.


Reliability of Census data


Census in India is conducted at regular intervals, having a large canvass with the goal of generating information on relatively permanent socio-economic characteristics of population in a comprehensive manner. It has never been designed for assessing the impact of certain kind of national policy or programme as that can result in a systematic bias in the responses. Even National Sample Surveys try to meet this objective and are conducted at regular intervals within a well defined framework.


In China such regularity in conducting the Census has not been maintained and also it has sometimes been conducted immediately after a major policy shift. Population is also estimated through sample survey, which is not the case in India. Also, China had adopted the policy of not counting the floating population in urban areas without a Hukou (legal permit), resulting in gross under-enumeration of urban population until recently. These are the reasons why Indian Census data are considered much more reliable than that in China. 


Houselisting, National Population Register and Unique Identity Card  


The information on select items for National Population Register (NPR) are being collected along with house listing and housing Census. This will be passed on to the concerned agency for the Unique ID. The population count of the Census will be done during February – March 2011, and it is a matter of some satisfaction that NPR has not been piggybacked on the actual Census operation, but only on Houselisting.


The basic objective of this UID, as being talked about in public domain, is that it will help in better targeting the anti poverty programmes and reduce the leakages. The other objective is to tackle of safety and security problem in the country.


UID is meant to exclude the ineligible population from the beneficiary list. However, this can help any agency in following a policy to exclude the “others”, the term being defined as someone coming from outside the state or a district, or after a cut off date. Many of the large cities are experiencing exclusionary urbanization through their land and slum related policies. By excluding the recent migrants from accessing certain civic amenities, and tenure etc., the UID can be effective in slowing down the rate of urbanisation, which already has become very low. Even the Eleventh Plan document expresses concern about this deceleration.


Various state governments may have different designs with regard to inclusion and exclusion. Indeed the UID cannot be blamed for their actions but it would certainly provide them a powerful tool - an important data base - for achieving their goal of exclusion. Similarly, political parties or civil society organizations can make use of the data base for their limited agenda. Professor Amartya Sen in his book “Identity and Violence” argues that certain type of identity has often been used in perpetrating discrimination and violence against communities. Given such trends in our society, how would the government ensure that the identity will be used for limited purpose of monitoring government programmes and better targeting and not pursuing discriminatory and unjust policies?


Undoubtedly, the UID would have a dampening impact on migration, especially across the states. The analysis of the 2001 Census data reveals that over 50 per cent of those who came to urban areas during nineties, reported their duration of stay at the place of enumeration as over 10 years. The social hostilities and administrative requirements for accessing certain facilities are forcing the recent migrants claim longer period of residence at the pace of enumeration. This would not be easy due to UID and the exclusionary forces would now have a powerful instrument to stall the inflow from rural areas, particularly from outside the state.

The 2011 Census is likely to bring down underestimation, as reported through Post enumeration checks. This is because people will have additional reason for getting themselves counted as that would give them a formal identity. However, this factor can also lead to misrepresentation of facts and make the data non-comparable with that from previous Censuses. While collecting information for Population Register as also the finger prints of the adults, the state must assure that these will not be used by vested interests. I believe that the critical issues linked with this have not been debated adequately in the country. Preparing UID is only 10 per cent a technological exercise. Ninety percent, it involves understanding the social dynamics and political interests of possible users and mis-users.  


Why Not a Caste-based Census?


It is important to note that Census questionnaire pertain to permanent social and economic characteristics. Information on employment, expenditure, inputs and output of industries etc. cannot be collected through Census as that would require more detailed questionnaire and longer enquiry time. Further, part time enumerators (largely school teachers) are not trained for collecting that detailed information. The information on consumption expenditure is collected through National Sample Survey.  


Collecting caste based data will be a major challenge as such data have not been collected after 1931, except for people in SC/ST categories. No one can argue that the government does not need this information, if it wants to implement its development programmes in a targeted manner. The proposition that collection of this information must be avoided as the data collection process itself would strengthen the caste differences and increase hostilities, is less important on the face of the emergent need for the data, to root out the problem.


However, collecting information on caste characteristics through Census schedule would inevitably encourage respondents to deliberately misrepresent facts. This is because people would know that the data are likely to be used for designing or monitoring policies and programmes for affirmative action. It is well known that in the sixties, people in Punjab region reported their mother tongue wrongly as the data were to be used for reorganization of the states. Again, due to the expectation of the data going immediately into policy, Census information on slums has not been reliable, even in 2001. Unfortunately, Planning Commission could not use that data for policy purposes as many of the state officials, when they knew that the number of slum households could be the basis for resource allocation, inflated the figures.


There is no doubt that the Census data are extremely important for programmatic interventions, even in India. Besides, the government needs reliable socio-economic information to evaluate the impact of major policy shifts or the flagship programmes, like NREGA and JNNURM. Specific policy linked data may, therefore, be collected, but by not adding questions in the Census schedule as that would distort the response in the entire schedule.


Any other national level research agency can be entrusted to collect such information, independent of the Census. It may be noted that International Institute of Population Sciences and National Council of Applied Economic Research are collecting very useful data on health, family welfare, human development etc., de-linked from other national level data base.


Information on caste etc. must, therefore, be collected by a national level organisation, having the necessary credibility and capability, under a dispassionate supervisory arrangement, without linking with the Census data collection system.


Amitabh Kundu is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. This article was written for Census 2011: Blinkered Vision Fragmented Ideas, a publication of the India Policy Foundation, a Delhi –based think tank  

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