Decade without Census data: Governing blind in Amrit Kaal

In the absence of Census data, the government makes tall claims about its achievements based on the inputs into its programmes, rather than on the basis of outcomes
Last Updated : 10 June 2023, 21:14 IST
Last Updated : 10 June 2023, 21:14 IST

Follow Us :


There is an old Akbar-Birbal story: Akbar wanted to corner Birbal on a question that the Jahanpanah thought his clever minister would not be able to answer truthfully at all. He asked, “Birbal, tell me accurately, what is the population of crows in Agra?” Birbal thought for a moment, and said, “Jahanpanah, there are 33,333 crows in Agra!” Akbar was stunned, but he also knew that Birbal was only being clever, not accurate or truthful. Jahanpanah assumed a stern tone, “Be careful, Birbal. How can you give such a precise number? If you are found to be wrong, I’ll punish you! What if there are 33,363 crows or 33,233 in Agra?” Birbal was ready with his answer. “Jahanpanah, the population of crows in Agra is exactly 33,333. If there are 33,363 crows at this moment, then 30 crows from other towns must be visiting their relatives in Agra; if there are 33,233 crows at this moment, then 100 of Agra’s crows must be visiting their relatives in other towns!” Birbal had called his Emperor out on the illogic of asking such a question.

That was in the 16th century. In the 21st century, we have ways to count and classify populations to a great degree of accuracy, even of birds and animals. But the most important such exercise governments undertake is conducting a periodic Census of countries’ human populations. In India, a Census has been conducted once every 10 years since 1881. It has been conducted through famines, pandemic, wars, the freedom struggle, and post-Independence, by the British colonial administration as well as successive governments of independent India – until 2011.

The latest Census exercise should have started in 2020 and been completed in 2021, and we should have had new and up to date data on our population. Understandably, the government could not conduct the exercise in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic. Indeed, many other governments around the world put off their Census exercises, too, for the same reason. But they have all since done their Censuses and have the latest data on their populations. For some reason, the Narendra Modi government is the only one that has not done its job so far. India was Covid-free for almost the entire year 2022 and has been so during 2023, too. Elections have been held, Modi has held mass rallies across the country, and every other activity is being conducted in the country. But Census cannot be held due to Covid! Just like the government cancelled one Parliament session and cut short another citing Covid, even as parliaments in equally severely affected countries made extra efforts to function so that they could hold their governments accountable during the crisis.

Why is the Census important?

Population Census is the total process of collecting, compiling, analysing and disseminating demographic, economic and social data pertaining, at a specific time, to all persons in the country. It also provides the trends in population characteristics. The Indian Census is one of the largest administrative exercises undertaken in the world and the single source of a variety of statistical information on different facets of the people of India. Researchers and demographers use Census data to analyse growth and population movements and make projections. The Finance Commission provides grants to states on the basis of population figures available from Census data.

The data collected by Census is used for administration, planning and policymaking as well as for management and evaluation of various programmes by the government. Census data is also used for delimitation, demarcation of constituencies and allocation of representation to Parliament, state legislative assemblies and the local bodies. It is also essential to determine the quality and inclusiveness of Electoral Rolls, critical for conducting free and fair elections, which is part of the basic structure of the Constitution. Census data is also important for businesses and industries when they seek to create or penetrate new markets and take their distribution channels into areas they have not touched before. In Akbar’s time, it was illogical to ask, “how many crows are there in Agra?” In Modi’s time, it is illogical not to have counted.

Census is the one exercise that tells us not only the absolute number of people, but also their demographic distribution across the country. If we do not know this distribution data, then everything else built on top of this ignorance is inaccurate, unreliable.

The State runs many welfare programmes and spends on public goods such as education and healthcare. It is important to measure whether these programmes are having any impact. The impact is measured through surveys, and surveys yield accurate results only if the sample chosen for them is a representative sample of the population. And samples, to be as accurately representative of the population as possible, must be based on the latest Census data which would reveal the distribution of that population in every sense – gender, age, region, religion, and in India’s peculiar case, caste, and so on. It is on the basis of these distributions that the Welfare State can perform its duties towards its citizens. Unfortunately, the country’s surveys, such as the government’s all-important National Family Health Survey as well as the unemployment, consumption and other economic surveys put out by the reputed private agency Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), have been forced to use projections based on the 2011 Census data to build their representative samples in 2023, when the country’s population has risen by more than 300 million net in the interregnum, thus denying them reliable samples and denying the country accurate data on where its people stand. Thus, whatever claims the government makes about its programmes and achievements must be regarded as inaccurate, in some cases even false. Has unemployment risen or fallen over the last 10 years? Has per capita income risen or fallen? The government says that it is giving free foodgrains to 810 million people. But does it know how many more millions are going hungry, how many more millions of children and women are going malnourished if it does not have the latest Census data on the population and its distribution?

In the absence of data, the government makes tall claims about its achievements based on the inputs into its programmes, rather than on the basis of outcomes. Those who question it are dubbed ‘anti-nationals’. Now, there’s even the threat of the government setting up its own ‘fact-checking units’ and to punish those publishing ‘fake news’, when the fact of the matter is that the government itself does not have reliable data on any aspect. Worse, the government goes to battle against global indices such as the Global Hunger Index and others measuring poverty, malnutrition, etc., on all of which India’s ranking has been falling over the last few years, without accurate data to back its claims. Instead, it resorts to calling every such report a conspiracy against Modi, conspiracy against India, etc.

Thus, when even authoritarian China conducted its most recent Census in the midst of the Covid pandemic in November 2020, the Modi government is content with taking decisions to deliver on its Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas promise without authentic data in hand as to who, how many, and where, are the people that it claims to be serving, and what their needs are.

Many questions

Therefore, the question arises: Why hasn’t the Modi government, which otherwise claims to be a data-driven government, conducted the Census, and why does it not seem keen to do so? Does it not believe that it needs accurate Census data to govern effectively? Or is it afraid that the Census might reveal data that is not convenient for its politics and propaganda? After all, remember that, in late 2018, when the National Statistical Organisation was ready with a report that showed that unemployment at that time (in the aftermath of the hare-brained demonetisation exercise) was at its highest since Independence, the government just did not allow the report to be published until after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections! Who knows, there might be inconvenient data that it does not want to become public and get in the way of its own ‘India Shining’ narrative ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, either. Or perhaps, the Census data could prove inconvenient for those peddling the ‘Muslim population is rising, India will become a Muslim-dominated country soon’ narrative to drive fear and hatred into Hindu minds?

We must hope that the Government of India will not allow such considerations to come in the way of conducting the Census. Union Home Minister Amit Shah recently hinted that the Census might be conducted, while typically making claims that the exercise had never been done accurately in the past and that his government would conduct the exercise electronically and thus more accurately and that would, in turn, lead to updating other national databases such as the Electoral Register, Aadhaar, ration card, passport and driving licence, etc. Yet he was conspicuously silent on the timeframe for the overdue Census of 2021. The Census of India Act 1948 does not bind the government to conduct the Census and publish its results in a notified period. But that does not mean that the government can do it any time that suits its convenience. The nation needs accurate data now.

(M G Devasahayam is a former IAS officer)

Published 10 June 2023, 18:38 IST

Deccan Herald is on WhatsApp Channels | Join now for Breaking News & Editor's Picks

Follow us on :

Follow Us