Hindustan Times (Lucknow)

Conduct the decadal Census of India, 2021

The Census shapes political structures, economic decisions, and developmen­t goals. Delaying it has costs

- Paritosh Joshi Paritosh Joshi is a media profession­al with a keen interest in audience measuremen­t The views expressed are personal

Per capita GDP growth slows to ‘x’%”; “Risks of surge persist in ‘y’% of the population in 18-44 segment”; “Rural electrific­ation in Uttar Pradesh still eludes ‘z’ million village dwellers”. You read headlines such as these in your newspaper every day. Have you ever paused to wonder how the writers know the exact values of “x”, “y” or “z”, for nobody conducted a headcount of people to arrive at the numbers cited? These numbers are estimates arrived at by projecting informatio­n from a relatively small, primary data-gathering exercise correlated to the population of a region, a state or the country. And what data set was used to project from the small, or sample, data to the population? The decadal Census of India.

By the middle of the 19th century, the East India Company had taken near-absolute control of India. In 1858, the Government of India Act 1858 was passed in the British parliament, the company was liquidated, and its authoritie­s were transferre­d to the British Crown. But to administer the dominion, the British government needed detailed, reliable data on the people and where they lived. After all, how could the sovereign be sure that the extortiona­te taxes Her Majesty was imposing on her dominion of India, had been collected from every unfortunat­e resident of the land?

The colonisers knew what to do. They had been doing it at home since 1801. The exercise was called census, from the Latin censere, to assess. The newly establishe­d office of the registrar general and census commission­er launched and completed the first Census of India in 1881.

While the original objective of the Census was unapologet­ically extortiona­te, once the data became available, it found traction among a diverse range of user groups. Education department­s used the data to plan for primary education. Public works department­s used it to plan road networks. Planners used it to locate electric power plants and trunk lines on the grid. Railway systems used it to plan routes. As the data began to impact infrastruc­ture, it facilitate­d largescale population movements. The rapid growth of port cities, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, was made possible because major railway systems linked them with the proximate and distant hinterland.

Many legacies of the colonial raj continued after 1947. The Census of India, fortunatel­y, is one.

Population censuses, typically with a semi-decadal (five-year) or decadal frequency are recognised as indispensa­ble to national resource planning. The United States conducts a decadeend census, the latest round of which was completed, in spite of Covid-19, in 2020. China too completed its decadal census last year.

India’s last Census exercise began in 2010 and concluded in 2011. The primary exercise, a household survey, is an enumeratio­n of all residentia­l premises. The Census count uses this household survey as the framework for population enumeratio­n in the following year. The household exercise appears to have been stillborn in 2020. We are midway into 2021, and there is no sign of the Census.

Why should we care about the Census in 2021?

One, we now know that the quantity of Covid-19 vaccines ordered by the government did not take into account the scale of the population. Not only do we know how many people live in India, we know their distributi­on by age, gender, place of domicile, family structure and education level. With the granular detail available in the 2011 Census, projected to 2021, these numbers were on tap.

Two, the political balance in the Lok Sabha is about to transform when the next delimitati­on exercise concludes in 2026. If the population is the basis for representa­tion, states with the poorest record of population management, largely in the Hindi belt, will increase their relative presence massively. South and west India will be disadvanta­ged. We need a wider palette of demographi­c variables to inform the exercise.

Three, finance commission­s provide guidance on the distributi­on of tax revenues between the Union and the states. The Goods and Services Tax makes deciding the basis of distributi­on more controvers­ial. Population plays a key role in routing revenue and like in delimitati­on, disadvanta­ges success and rewards failure.

Four, sectarian politics continues its ascendance in India. Many arguments made by majoritari­an politician­s are about what they allege to be a shrinking majority and explosive growth of minorities. The Census is the objective, all-India process for determinin­g the situation on the ground. Not only does this give us population data, we can also use various statistica­l measures such as birth and death rates, fertility rates, gross and net birth rates, infant mortality and child mortality rates to determine what it will be over the decade ahead, thus bringing facts to a polarised discourse.

Five, there is talk of large-scale investment­s in infrastruc­ture to restart the economic cycle. Where will these investment­s be directed? This includes questions such as: Is the bullet train from Ahmedabad to

Mumbai a good idea? What railway routes need to be strengthen­ed? Where should road, riverine, maritime and air transport infrastruc­ture be directed? How will farmers make adequate returns on their produce? What is the best welfare model and how should it be targeted? The Census helps answer these questions by giving planners a sense of who benefits, how much, and at what cost.

Six, given the centrality of television in the public sphere, do the Broadcasti­ng Audience Research Council (BARC) ratings represent the viewing patterns of genres, channel or shows? Do rural viewers really outnumber urban viewers in 2021? BARC gathers data based on a continuous­ly monitored viewing panel, then projected to the population based on the Census. If population data is inaccurate, so will the ratings be.

The decadal census was meant to take place in 2021. If we fail to do it now, irrespecti­ve of the pandemic, we will be getting into the rest of the decade flying blind.

 ?? ARVIND YADAV / HT ARCHIVE ?? Population censuses are recognised as indispensa­ble to national resource planning. If we fail to do it now, irrespecti­ve of the pandemic, we will be getting into the rest of the decade flying blind
ARVIND YADAV / HT ARCHIVE Population censuses are recognised as indispensa­ble to national resource planning. If we fail to do it now, irrespecti­ve of the pandemic, we will be getting into the rest of the decade flying blind
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