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Delayed or denied? 

The whole process of census-taking needs at least one year, and only thereafter will the provisional population figures be available. The break-up of the population into various social categories and workers and the related preparation of final tables will take further time. In fact, by the time the final religious tables start coming up, say in 2027, the Government will be busy preparing for the next census operation of 2031



Conducting the census is a statutory duty entrusted to the Union Government under section 3 of the Indian Census Act 1948. The Act has not provided any specific date or time for taking the census and the matter solely rests on the Union Government. So far in our 150 year-history of census operations, it has been a convention of taking the census every ten years. The exception has occurred only in the case of the 17th census operation scheduled for the year 2021. More than two years have elapsed and the Union Government is maintaining complete silence on the matter of confirming the date of the next census in the country.

Initially, the office of the Registrar General of India (ORGI) issued notifications for conducting Census 2021 in time. The caste population of the country was upbeat about this census as Home Minister Rajnath Singh had announced in 2018 that the caste census shall be taken during the census operation of 2021. It may be noted that due to the non-availability of data on caste population, the Mandal Commission had advised the Government way back in 1992 to conduct caste censuses so as to get the actual strength of the caste population in India.

Meanwhile, the new Government was installed at the Centre in 2019 and the Minister for Home Affairs was changed. Now, the Government came out with the declaration that there shall be no caste census along with the 17th Census operations. However, the sudden outbreak of the Covid pandemic in 2020 forced the government to keep the operation in abeyance. While this is the case with India, there are at least four countries including China, where the census operation was due in 2020-21 and was conducted on time.

At present, whatever information is available on Census 2021 are all actually deductions from various related sources. For example, Rule 8 (iv) of the Census Rule 1990 empowers the States and Union Territories to issue notification freezing the administrative boundaries of districts, tehsils, towns, etc. from the date to be intimated by the Census Commissioner.

This order is issued not earlier than one year from the reference date of census and remains in operation till the completion of census operation. In exercise of this power, the ORGI issued on 6 January a letter extending the date of freezing the administrative boundaries from 31 December 2022 to 1 July 2023. Earlier, on seven occasions, this date was extended.

Usually, three months after the terminal date of freezing, the census operation takes place. In that case, the census house listing should take place by September this year. But this has a remote possibility in view of the fact that six States will go for polls between May and December 2023. Then there are the general elections to Lok Sabha which should be completed by May 2024. Against this backdrop, the ORGI doesn’t seem to be interested at all in conducting the census in 2023 and will attempt to seek a date between August and September 2024 to hold the census.

The Indian Census is a huge affair involving crores of rupees. The term of the present Lok Sabha will come to an end on 24 June 2024 and the election to constitute the 18th Lok Sabha should be held well before June. Thus, the present Lok Sabha will not submit the full budget but will seek only a vote on account. It follows that the allocation for conducting the census will be done only by the newly constituted 18th Lok Sabha which will amount to more than Rs 10,000 crore. Only thereafter will the process start.

Once the Government decides on the date for the holding of the census, the process will roll on. First, the States and UTs will share with ORGI the information pertaining to boundaries ~ both existing and updated ~ of the administrative units from the village and upward. ORGI then prepares an initial plan for House listing with this data.

Usually, the House listing phase takes more than six months. But in this census, the information will be directly entered into the website after visiting each house. The enumerators will carry with them the necessary apparatuses such as tablets, mobiles laptops etc. Moreover, by an amendment of the relevant Rules ~ namely, rule 2 and rule 5 of Census Rules 1990 in 2022, the Government has now enabled the “self-enumeration” by which the respondents can fill up the census forms themselves.

Another hazard in the way of conducting the Census is concerning the government’s decision on updating the National Population Register (NPR). The NPR was first prepared in 2010 and later updated in 2015 adding some new entries in it. This time the Government announced updating the NPR side by side with the Census 2021. But several non-BJP ruled States had objected to it. Although no final decision about this update has been announced by the Government, the recent annual report (2021- 22) of the Home Ministry published in November 2022 has advocated the updating. If the Government decides in favour of updating the NPR, then it is to be done at the stage of complete enumeration.

The whole process of censustaking needs at least one year, and only thereafter will the provisional population figures be available. The break-up of the population into various social categories and workers and the related preparation of final tables will take further time. In fact, by the time the final religious tables start coming up, say in 2027, the Government will be busy preparing for the next census operation of 2031.

Considering this, the government may finally decide to concentrate on preparing only the core tables for this Census. This would only mean that we have missed the Census 2021 and the data we get in 2025 and after is evidently not the data of 2021. This, in other words, means that the nation is denied a census.

However, as announced by the Government, if the census is taken digitally, most of the provisional tables will be available by July-August 2025. In that case, there will be a deviation of a maximum of four or four and a half years from the actual date on which the census 2021 should have been taken.

The valuable time that elapsed between 2021 and now makes it amply clear that the Government is not wholeheartedly engaged in the rescheduling of the Census operation 2021.

The intention of the government is not very clear although there is scope to believe that there are certain census characteristics that the Government may not be wanting to know for which the matter has been dragged. One such characteristic may be the disturbing growth rate of the population of religious minorities.

Despite programmes like Ghar wapsi, two children norm and bulldozing of houses, the rate hardly would show any falling trend. Another point worth noting here is that this census will shed light on the frequently discussed issue of the government concealing the actual Covid-19 death figures. Even the WHO estimated that deaths due to covid-19 in India would be ten times more than what has been revealed by the government of India.

Research conducted by other countries also confirmed that India’s death toll is much more than what has been stated officially. The census 2021 figures will reveal these mismatches to some extent if conducted without further delay.

The delay already caused in conducting the census 2021 would have serious implications on various social and economic variables and their effect on our day-to-day life will be cumulative. Fourteen years is too long a period to make use of the demographic data that was enumerated way back in 2011.

Large-scale variation occurs in the demographic pattern of a locality in a ten-year period which we come to know only when we get data from the next census. But since the next census has not been held, it will be wrong to estimate the values of different demographic variables simply depending on data made available some 14 years back.

Moreover, the Census is a complete enumeration of the population and therefore where census data are required for taking any decision using sampled or estimated data there, deducing by way of either interpolation or extrapolation would be sure to give inaccurate results.

Today, we are in a state where we do not know our literacy rate as we do not have the number of literate population and persons in the 0-6 age group; we do not know the strength of our main and marginal workers and their coverage in agriculture and allied sectors – we neither have any data on urban growth nor any population data for social categories.

But we know that we have no alternative but to live in this state of affairs for another two years. Government must come forward quickly to end this vacuum by rescheduling the census operation as quickly as possible.

(The writer is a former IAS officer who retired as Secretary Finance, Government of Assam)