Census in India

Context: Last month, an annual report by the UN Population Fund revealed that India was all set to become the world’s most populous country by the middle of this year. It estimated that India’s population would be 1,428 million (or 142.8 crore) by that time, slightly ahead of China’s population of 1,425 million.

Importance of Census

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India would have had a far more accurate number for its population had the 2021 Census exercise been carried out. The 2021 Census had to be postponed because of the Covid pandemic, the first time in the 150-year history of India’s census operations that the exercise was not completed on time. Curiously, the Census has been pending even after the end of the pandemic and the restoration of normalcy.

As of now, there is no clarity on the timeline. The enumeration work — the actual counting of people — has traditionally been done in February of the Census year, and if the same practice is to be followed, the earliest it can now be done is in February next year.

Ten-year cycle – A constitutional or just a Legal mandate?

  • A Census is Constitutionally mandated in India. There are repeated references to the Census exercise in the Constitution in the context of reorganisation of constituencies for Parliament and state Assemblies. But the Constitution does not say when the Census has to be carried out, or what the frequency of this exercise should be. The Census of India Act of 1948, which provides the legal framework for carrying out the Census, also does not mention its timing or periodicity.
  • There is, therefore, no Constitutional or legal requirement that a Census has to be done every 10 years. However, this exercise has been carried out in the first year of every decade, without fail, since 1881. Most other countries also follow the 10-year cycle for their Census. There are countries like Australia that do it every five years.

Census Act, 1948

  • Although the population Census of India is a major administrative function, the Census Organisation was set up on an ad-hoc basis for each Census till the Census of 1951.
  • The Census Act, enacted in 1948, then provided for the permanent scheme of conducting population Census with duties and responsibilities of Census Officers.
  • The Act makes it obligatory on the part of every citizen to answer the Census question truthfully and also penalises for giving false information.
  • One of the most important provisions of the Census Act 1948 is that it makes provisions for the maintenance of secrecy of the information collected at the Census of each individual. All information collected under the Census is confidential and is not shared with any agency- Government or private.

Authority Involved

  • The Government of India in May 1949 decided to initiate steps for developing the systematic collection of statistics on the size of the population, its growth, etc.
  • For this purpose, it established an organisation viz. Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner under Ministry of Home Affairs (which is responsible for conducting the decennial Census).
  • Later, this office was also entrusted with the responsibility of implementation of Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 in the country.

It is not the legal requirement but the utility of the Census that has made it a permanent regular exercise. The Census produces primary, authentic data that becomes the backbone of every statistical enterprise, informing all planning, administrative and economic decision-making processes. It is the basis on which every social, economic and other indicator is built. Lack of reliable data – 12-year-old data on a constantly changing metric is not reliable – has the potential to upset every indicator on India, and affect the efficacy and efficiency of all kinds of developmental initiatives.

Besides, a break in periodicity results in data that is not comparable in some respects to the earlier sets.

Population censuses are important for several reasons:

  • Planning and Policy: Census data provides vital information for governments and policymakers to make informed decisions and develop effective plans. It helps in determining the allocation of resources, such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and social welfare programs, based on the population’s needs. Census data assists in identifying demographic trends, population distribution, and changes in population size over time, which guides policy formulation and implementation.
  • Resource Allocation: Census data helps in the fair distribution of resources. It provides accurate population counts and demographic information, which enable governments to allocate funds and services equitably across different regions and communities. By understanding the population characteristics, governments can identify areas with specific needs and allocate resources accordingly.
  • Infrastructure Development: Census data aids in infrastructure planning and development. It provides insights into population density, migration patterns, and urbanization trends, which help in determining where new infrastructure, such as roads, schools, hospitals, and utilities, should be built. It assists in efficient urban planning and ensures that infrastructure projects are aligned with the population’s requirements.
  • Economic Analysis: Census data plays a crucial role in economic analysis and decision-making. It provides information on employment, occupation, income levels, and other socioeconomic indicators. Governments, businesses, researchers, and policymakers utilize this data to analyze market trends, assess labor force needs, identify potential investment opportunities, and develop economic policies.
  • Social Research and Demographic Studies: Census data serves as a valuable resource for social research and demographic studies. Researchers and analysts utilize this data to study population dynamics, social inequalities, migration patterns, family structures, and other demographic characteristics. It helps in understanding societal changes, tracking population trends, and formulating social policies.
  • Electoral Representation: Census data is utilized for determining electoral boundaries and ensuring fair political representation. It provides information on population distribution, allowing governments to redraw electoral districts to ensure each district has roughly equal populations. This process helps maintain democratic principles by ensuring that each citizen’s vote carries equal weight.
  • Monitoring Progress and Evaluating Policies: Census data provides a baseline for monitoring progress and evaluating the effectiveness of policies and programs. By conducting periodic censuses, governments can compare population data over time and assess the impact of various interventions. It enables policymakers to identify areas where policies have been successful and areas that require further attention.

Overall, population censuses are crucial for informed decision-making, equitable resource allocation, policy formulation, and monitoring societal changes. They provide a comprehensive understanding of the population, facilitating better governance, planning, and development for the benefit of society as a whole.

Challenges faced during conduct of Census in India:

  • The enormous financial costs of conducting the exercise pose one of the biggest challenges associated with census in poor countries. Conducting a census is widely known to be extremely costly.
  • Conducting censuses in countries with high illiteracy rates presents a significant obstacle. These nations struggle with large proportions of their populations being illiterates, making the census process more challenging.
  • Poor infrastructural facilities in certain areas make it very difficult to undertake an efficient population census. Inaccessible or insufficient roads that connect various towns and villages create hurdles for conducting the census exercise.
  • Census officers encounter serious challenges in underdeveloped parts of the world where traditional and religious beliefs prevail. Traditional beliefs often interfere with the counting process when officers reach these areas.
  • Corruption adds another layer of complexity to the census process. When corruption occurs during census activities, it becomes difficult to achieve an efficient and accurate population count.
  • Certain parts of the world suffer from a shortage of census experts. The insufficient number of professionals with the necessary knowledge and experience of conducting a census poses a problem for conducting censuses in these regions.
  • The success of a census exercise heavily relies on an effective educational campaign. The level of effectiveness of the campaign conducted prior to the census determines the overall success of the census exercise.
  • Unreliable demographic maps make it challenging for authorities to identify and reach all remote areas, especially very remote regions of the country, for conducting the census exercise.

In conclusion, the population census holds immense importance as a constitutional and administrative function in India. Although not legally required to be conducted every ten years, the census has been consistently carried out since 1881, providing primary and authentic data that serves as the foundation for various statistical endeavors. The census data plays a vital role in planning, policymaking, resource allocation, infrastructure development, economic analysis, social research, electoral representation, and monitoring progress and evaluating policies. By understanding demographic trends and population characteristics, governments can make informed decisions and address the needs of different regions and communities. 

However, the conduct of the census in India faces significant challenges, including financial constraints, high illiteracy rates, inadequate infrastructure, traditional beliefs, corruption, a shortage of experts, insufficient educational campaigns, and unreliable demographic maps. Overcoming these challenges is crucial to ensure accurate and reliable data, which forms the basis for effective governance, planning, and development for the betterment of society as a whole.

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