June 24, 2024

Lukmaan IAS

A Blog for IAS Examination

TOPIC : THE ISSUE OF THE DELAY IN CONDUCTING CENSUS

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THE CONTEXT: The decennial census of 2021 has been pushed forward again and is unlikely to start at least till September 2023. The Office of the Registrar General of India (ORGI) announced that the date of freezing the administrative boundaries had been extended from December 31, 2022, to July 1, 2023 and as census can only begin three months after the boundaries have been frozen, and the completion of the Census in its two phases takes at least 11 months which meant that the exercise would begin only after that, and can be extended to 2024. In this regard, let’s have a look on the process of census and reasons for the delay and its consequences.

REASONS FOR DELAY IN CENSUS

From the first synchronous census in 1881, the decadal census exercise has never been delayed or postponed but census 2021 has now been postponed more than once and following are the reasons listed for the same:

  • Covid 19 pandemic: Centre’s intent to conduct the 2021 Census was notified in the Gazette of India on March 28, 2019 and freeze on administrative boundaries was to be effective from January 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, before the COVID-19 pandemic. But because of covid 19 pandemic, it got delayed. Though, three countries that also saw severe COVID outbreaks UK, China, and US have since completed their census exercises.
  • Extension of freezing of boundaries: In 2020, the census was postponed indefinitely, and several requests were received from States for permission to create new units and the date of freezing of boundaries was first extended till December 31, 2020. It was extended again till December 31, 2021, then June 30, 2022 and further again to December 31, 2022 which led to delay in exercise.
  • Administrative difficulties: Administration is not well equipped with all the powers and equipments and is
  • Government unwillingness: One of the possible reasons for delay is being cited as government unwillingness as it is possible that the government wants to hold back the census until the general elections are over.
  • Not enough data and surveys: As there is lack of data and surveys that are conducted, it is becoming hard to compile the overall data such as data on fertility rates of religious groups might also not be present.

CENSUS: WHAT IS CENSUS, BACKGROUND AND MECHANISM

WHAT IS CENSUS

  • Census is a treasure trove of a vast mine of information and it encapsulates everything from literacy levels, education, housing, household amenities, migration, urbanization, fertility and mortality, language, religion, disability, and other socio-cultural and demographic data age, gender and marital status.
  •  It is the largest repository of the nation’s people. It is also a source of primary data at the village, town, and ward levels.

BACKGROUND

  • India’s first proper or synchronous Census is the one which begins on the same day or year across regions of the country, was carried out in 1881 by the colonial administration and has since happened every 10 years, except the one that was supposed to be carried out in 2021.
  • The onus of census exercise falls on the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner (ORGI), under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
  • Census Act of 1948 was passed just after Independence and a separate office of Registrar General of India (RGI) was established under the home ministry. However, the Act does not bind the government to conduct the Census on a particular date or to release its data in a notified period.

MACHINERY

Process of census conduction:

  • During the census process, workers visit every house and fill up forms, which are transported to data processing centers for digitisation and analysis.
  • However, now the workers will go door-to-door with tablets or smartphones and will enter information into a portal directly. It used to take 12 months to complete pre-census activities and census enumeration.

Conduction in two phases: The decennial census is carried out by lakhs of enumerators empanelled and trained by the government in two phases.

  • The first phase is the housing Census, where data on housing conditions, household amenities and assets possessed by households are collected .Under houselisting, details of all buildings, permanent or temporary, are noted with their type, amenities, and assets.
  • The second phase is where data on population, education, religion, economic activity, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, language, literacy, migration, and fertility are collected. In which. After making a list of all households that are surveyed, population enumeration is carried out. In population enumeration, more detailed information on each individual residing in the country, Indian national or otherwise is to be noted.

Then the actual census takes place, to ensure there’s no double-counting.

Digitally conducted census:

  • Upcoming Census will also be the first Census both in digital mode and through paper schedules (questionnaires/forms).
  • In 2022, the Union government amended the Census Rules framed in the year 1990 to allow the details to be captured and stored in an electronic form and also make a provision enabling self-enumeration by respondents.
  • Home Ministry informed the Parliament in December that mobile and web applications for the collection of data and a portal (CMMS) for management and monitoring of various caste related activities.

SIGNIFICANCE OF DECENNIAL CENSUS

Importance of the Census can be understood from its stature in the Constitution it finds place in the 7th Schedule and the Union list. Few are some significance of census mentioned below:

  • Evidence based decision making: Evidence-based decision-making is a universally recognized paradigm of efficient management of economic and social affairs and of overall effective governing of societies and census is very significant regarding this.
  • Analyzing society and economy: Census data are also used extensively by researchers, in India and abroad, for analyzing the state of India’s economy and society. For example in the early 1990s, the country woke up to the reality of its adverse sex ratios only through census data. This led to the enactment of legislation criminalising sex selection tests and sex selective abortions.
  • Policy making: Economists, sociologists, demographers and public-policy experts delve into the census data to make predictions, garner inferences, and construct policy prescriptions. For example census data contributed to policy formulations, including schemes such as Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao.
  • Ensuring Democratic and Political representation: Census data is equally crucial for democratic and political representation. Delimitation, for example, is one way to ensure equal opportunity of representation.
  • Smoothening Administrative function: Census data is crucial for various administrative functions, welfare schemes, and other surveys which led to smoothening of administrative function.

CONSEQUENCES OF DELAY IN CARRYING OUT CENSUS

  • Hampering policy making: As government institutions depend on census data for policy making so for delaying the census will hamper the entire gamut of government policies. This delay has many important consequences for policy-making, knowledge about the economy, and academic research that informs policy design. For instance, in the absence of up-to-date population figures, it is estimated that around 100 million new people who were supposed to come under the public food distribution system would be left out.
  • Deprivation of resource allocation to beneficiaries: Government schemes or programmes are based on census, but if the figures are not updated, there are bound to be many who would be deprived of the benefit. Therefore, the delay in the census impacts actual beneficiaries. For example, around 100 million people are likely being left out of the government’s Public Distribution System (PDS) as the population figures used to calculate beneficiaries are based on the 2011 census.
  • Administrative functions: Accuracies of policies that target consumption, income, or wealth creation in specific geographies or particular social groups would be affected too, since all calculations would be based on erroneous numbers and statistics.
  • Unreliable Census data: An old census data loses its reliability and any sample selection for surveys on housing, labour or consumption drawn from it gives a misleading conclusion. Therefore there is need to carrying out census on time.

ANALYSIS OF THE ISSUE

WHY CENSUS IS IMPORTANT

Census gives a macro picture, and aggregate data from this gives the larger picture of characteristics. Even though the census is conducted only once in 10 years, it provides the possibility for interpolations, extrapolations, and projections. This was how data was produced for a wider knowledge base. And the census is important in not just the planning and formulation of policies for central and state governments, but also for global agencies, scholars, businesses and others.

COMPARISON WITH OTHER SURVEYS

Census is a unique exercise in the sense that it gives a complete enumeration with no sampling errors. The government does have mechanisms to collect data through surveys like the National Sample Surveys, Periodic Labour Force Surveys, or Health Management Information Systems surveys through which schemes like the public distribution system (PDS) or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) are implemented. But the census gives a complete picture of the population, and of various categories of the population. Sample surveys and the census complement each other, but sample surveys pretty much rely on census data

USE OF CENSUS DATA

Census data are critical for other sample surveys conducted in the country as they use the Census data as a ‘frame’ or list from which a representative sample of the population is selected for surveys. For example, the latest edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) released last year, it was the 2011 data that served as the sampling frame. These data were used for making budget allocations, resource allocation and political delimitation of constituencies, political representation and planning.

REASONS FOR DELAY

So, what is weighing heavy on the mind of the Union government? Is it Covid or administrative difficulties? Or is it political questions related to caste enumeration that the government doesn’t want to know the answers to? Or is it a populist decision. However, despite difficulties and whatever might be the reason, postponing or scrapping the Census will have implications on government policies and making policies without facts and data can lead to many unforeseen disasters.

GOVERNMENT REACTION

Yet, the government appears unconcerned about this inordinate delay. It would not be surprising if the exercise is delayed beyond the parliamentary elections in 2024. Finally, it is now quite well-known internationally that India has been tardy in publishing official statistics on important measures such as poverty and unemployment. The delay in starting work on the census could be interpreted as being part of a larger strategy of feet-dragging over revealing what might be unpleasant data. India was once known to be a leader in the use of statistical data for national economic planning and policy formulation. India’s official data were never suspect despite the presence of a large informal sector where the reliability of data is usually suspect. If that reputation is tarnished further, it would cause damage to the nation’s image.

INTERNATIONAL BEST PRACTICES IN CONDUCTING CENSUS

In the past, empires and nations often took regular censuses. From Babylon to China to India to Russia, governments needed to tax people and conscript soldiers, so they counted men. The practice of using data from a census to inform and direct policy

  • Austria: In 1990s, when census taking became increasingly controversial due to high costs, low frequency, Austria shifted to first register based census using information taken directly from existing administrative registers. This new census compared to traditional census is less expensive and provide data sooner and with higher frequency.
  • Japan: Japan collects census every five years and it solicits information on name, sex, relationship to head of household, type and nature dwelling, floor area of dwelling, number of hours worked, employment status and kind of work. Regardless of nationality or legal status all residents in Japan are required to complete the census. All information collected by census is confidential and protected by the Statistics Act.
  • Switzerland: In Switzerland, Federal Population Census, carried out every 10 years. Earlier census failed to provide necessary data. From 2010, census is to be conducted through written questionnaires distributed nationwide. Instead, data in existing population registers is used.
  • United States of America: From 1950 onwards census forms were mailed to every address on record with United States Postal System and later made illegal. Later, in addition to decennial federal census , local censuses have also been conducted for example in Massachusetts a state wise  census is conducted every five years until 1985. Some states conducted limited censuses for various purposes and these are typically located in state archives.

THE WAY FORWARD

  • Operational efficiency: There is need to work on the operational efficiency of the exercise as there are operational problems in conducting the census which is hindering the process.
  • Digitisation of census exercise: Census exercise can be fast-tracked through digital census, with a provision for self-enumeration. The amended census rules now allow a person to “fill up, complete and submit the census schedule” themselves. However, there is a need for successful implementation of self-enumeration in terms of data quality and completeness of coverage.
  • High internet penetration: Widespread computer literacy and accessibility are also important in the digitally-driven census. As Only 50 crore Indians have access to smartphones and less than 8 in 10 are online, there is a need to increase the penetration as data collection through a mobile app will reduce the overall time taken to process the census data and to publish the results in time. Experts suggest the government can use GPS to mark the enumeration block boundaries, but these technologies are still evolving in India and are very costly.
  • NPR should be delinked: Exercise of collecting data for the National Population Register (NPR), which was to happen with the first phase of the Census, should now be delinked, owing to its politically sensitive nature and the urgency of the Census.
  • Start Houselisting: Hurrying through the census could be damaging and defeat its purpose. So, we need to start houselisting as early as possible. The enumeration can only be done in 2024 if houselisting starts now. Houselisting poses a challenge for India, because the country does not have a robust address system.
  • Need to freeze boundaries: Another challenge is the ever-changing boundaries of districts and tehsils within a state, a practice that must be freezed a year before the census exercise.
  • Setting up of separate expert group: Parliamentary standing committee on home affairs has recommended the setting up of a separate expert group by the RGI to examine the census pattern.

THE CONCLUSION: Delaying the census could have a far-reaching impact as without census data, policy formulation can be affected and also the census exercise should not merely be data-oriented but rather provide a perspective of the culture and society. Therefore, there is need to hasten the exercise of conduction census.

MAINS QUESTION

  1. Delaying the census exercise will have economic, political and social consequences. Analyse.
  2. Census has been pushed many times, Cite the reasons for this delay and what steps should be taken to conduct the census efficiently on time?
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