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Avoid further delay in conducting the Census

The Census alone can provide population data for every village and town, data for the delimitation of constituencies and for determining the quantum of reservation, and validate or reject estimates

In February 1961, I was in primary school. I still remember the visit of the Census enumerator to our house. Fondly called Pachu Pillai, he was a teacher in our school and a family friend. Since many teachers were on Census duty, we (though not the entire school) got a couple of days off. Next year I waited for the Census enumerator to visit our house and was told that the exercise takes place every 10 years.


Freezing of administration boundaries

Recently, this newspaper reported that the freezing of administrative boundaries that precedes the Census would be done with effect from July 1, 2023. Such a freezing is necessary as State governments are in the habit of creating new districts and tehsils or reorganising existing ones. If such changes happen during a Census, there would be chaos in the field as to who should oversee such areas and a likelihood of some areas being left out of the Census. House-listing operations take about a month, but were traditionally taken up in various States at different points of time between March and September of the year prior to the Census. It is not clear whether the government is planning to synchronise the house-listing operations to reduce the interval between the freezing of boundaries and the actual Census enumeration. There is no official statement yet about when the Census would be conducted.


When restrictions were imposed to contain the pandemic in March 2020, several States in the country were on the threshold of starting house-listing operations. Enumerators were appointed and trained, questionnaires were printed, mobile applications were ready for use by willing enumerators and other logistic arrangements were in place. But the pandemic ensured that the house-listing and, consequently, the population enumeration phase were postponed. Two years have been lost. There is no reason for a further postponement.

The Constitution talks about the use of Census data for delimitation of constituencies and for determining the quantum of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, it does not say what should be the periodicity of the census. The Census Act, 1948, which predates the Constitution, provides the legal background for several activities relating to the Census without mentioning anything about its periodicity. It says, “The Central Government may,... declare its intention of taking a census..., whenever it may consider it necessary or desirable so to do, and thereupon the census shall be taken”. This provision puts the onus of deciding when to conduct a Census on the executive. This is unlike the position in several countries such as the U.S. and Japan where the Constitution or the Census law mandates a Census with defined periodicity.

Implications of the delay

The Census alone can provide population data for every village and town in the country. Sample surveys can provide reliable data on social and demographic indicators only at higher geographic levels. Apart from the population count, the Census has also been providing data on population characteristics, housing and amenities.


We have population projections at the State and national level that have been fairly accurate in the past. However, it is not feasible to get reliable projections at lower geographic levels such as for districts and cities or even small States and Union Territories. For answers to questions on the improvement in literacy and educational levels, economic activity, migration, etc., or the impact of programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, one must depend on sample surveys. But these surveys have limitations and cannot be used to find answers to how many villages have literacy rates below 75% or which tehsils have a low percentage of people getting protected water supply. Such information is important to initiate action to rectify the situation.

The Census data are used to determine the number of seats to be reserved for SCs and STs in Parliament, State legislatures, local bodies, and government services. In case of panchayats and municipal bodies, reservation of seats for SCs and STs is based on their proportion in the population. Other than the Census, there is no other source that can provide this information. Delay in the Census means that the data from the 2011 Census would continue to be used. In many towns and even panchayats that have seen rapid changes in the composition of their population over the last decade, this would mean that either too many or too few seats are being reserved. Delimitation of parliamentary and Assembly constituencies would continue to be based on 2001 Census till data from a Census after 2026 are published.


We have population projections at the State and national level that have been fairly accurate in the past. However, it is not feasible to get reliable projections at lower geographic levels such as for districts and cities or even small States and Union Territories. For answers to questions on the improvement in literacy and educational levels, economic activity, migration, etc., or the impact of programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, one must depend on sample surveys. But these surveys have climitations and cannot be used to find answers to how many villages have literacy rates below 75% or which tehsils have a low percentage of people getting protected water supply. Such information is important to initiate action to rectify the situation.

The rural-urban distribution of population has been rapidly changing over the years. There is high population growth in the urban areas. Some cities have been growing faster than others through in-migration. The rural-urban distribution of population has been rapidly changing over the years. There is high population growth in the urban areas. Some cities have been growing faster than others through in-migration. For example, areas under the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike grew by 49.3% during 2001-11, while the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (11.9%), the Delhi Municipal Corporation (11.7%), and Greater Chennai Corporation (7.0%) had much lower growth rates. Kolkata Municipal Corporation recorded a fall in population during the same period.

The pandemic resulted in deaths among adults and the aged relatively more than children. Its impact on age distribution in severely affected areas would be of interest as it would give an indirect estimates of the number of deaths. This would either validate or reject the various estimates of the number of deaths due to the pandemic.


Census and NPR

The decision to collect data for the National Population Register by piggybacking on the Census operations was the most debated issue before the Census was postponed. Such controversies negatively impact the Census, which is the largest administrative exercise for collecting data. The Census is a single-shot operation and there is no scope for a retake. The Central government’s stated stand is that the data for the National Population Register would be updated during the Census. As the Census has been considerably delayed, it would be advisable to separate these two and disassociate the Census from a politically sensitive issue. This would help complete the Census as early as possible and maintain reliability of data.


The first Census after 2026 would be used for delimitation of parliamentary and Assembly constituencies and for apportionment of parliamentary seats among the States. Due to the disparity in growth rates between the States, there could be changes in the distribution of seats in Parliament. That Census is likely to be held in a more politically charged atmosphere. Hence, it is necessary that this Census is done as early as possible.

K. Narayanan Unni is retired from Indian Statistical Service. He was Deputy Registrar General and a member of the Advisory Committee for the 2011 and 2021 Censuses. Email: knunni@gmail.com

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