Image Courtesy: economictimes.indiatimes.com
At every session in Parliament in the past two years, questions have been raised over the timeline of the Census which was supposed to be carried out in 2021. The government had, in 2020, expressed its intention to carry out the first phase of Census called the houselisting phase and the National Population Register (NPR) along with it. While the declaration for NPR met with a lot of opposition and criticism, calling it the first step towards the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Census was unopposed, as a regular practice.
However, since the Census scheduled for 2021 was postponed, genuinely at that time, due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reason being dragged on for over two years and more has become tiring and the decision to delay Census has raised questions over the government’s intentions. Since after COVID, life has returned to normal and even a number of state elections have taken place and, in all probability, so will the general elections next year. Each time, the question over Census has been asked in the past two years, the answer has been standard, “The intent of the Government for conducting Census 2021 was notified in the Gazette of India on 28th March, 2019. However, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the conduct of Census 2021, updating of National Population Register and the related field activities have been postponed until further orders.”
These “further orders”, however, do not seem forthcoming at all. There has been no notification about the census and the general elections are due next year, which is another mammoth exercise to be carried out in a democracy with a population of over 1.2 billion (as per Census 2011). The population is projected to be over 1.4 billion currently, but there is no way to confirm this officially until the census is conducted.
Under the Census Act, there is no mandate or obligation upon the Union government to conduct Census every 10 years. The section 3 of the Act states:
3. Central Government to take census.—The Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, declare its intention of taking a census in the whole or any part of the territories to which this Act extends, whenever it may consider it necessary or desirable to do so, and there upon the census shall be taken.
The General Secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM), Sitaram Yechury criticized the government for delaying the Census and said that “it is criminal to further postpone the 2021 Census”. He further said in his tweet, “Census data is vital for policy formulations & for focusing on programmes for marginalised people & economically backward regions. Since it started in 1881 it continued uninterrupted even during the two World Wars!”
It is criminal to further postpone Census 2021.
Census data is vital for policy formulations & for focussing on programmes for marginalised people & economically backward regions.
Since it started in 1881 it continued uninterrupted even during the two World Wars! pic.twitter.com/gIVqMDyqHY
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) February 8, 2023
Many publications, including the BBC, have raised concerns over this delayed exercise. BBC spoke to economist Dipa Sinha who quoted research by economists Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera and Meghana Mungikar to state that since the government still depends on population figures from the 2011 census to determine who is eligible for aid, more than 100 million people are estimated to be excluded from the PDS.
“Apart from the direct impact on welfare schemes, the census also provides the data set from which other crucial studies – such as the National Sample Survey (a series of surveys that collect information on all aspects of the economic life of citizens) and National Family Health Survey (a comprehensive household survey of health and social indicators) – draw their samples,” says BBC.
K Narayanan Unni, who served as Deputy Registrar General and was a member of the Advisory Committee for Census 2011 and 2021, spoke to Rediff and said that a few crores of people are out of the net for many government schemes due to lack in counting of the population that has grown since 2011. About the delay in Census he said, “Technically, we should not have had this kind of a delay. Now, there is no way of doing it earlier. As things stand, we cannot do it before 2024”.
Countries like Canada, Australia have managed to complete their census in 2021 and even, United Kingdom, the colonialists, from whom we carried forward our Census have completed their Census in 2021. The only question remains, in that case, is what is holding the Indian government back?