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Explained | The delay in the decennial Census

What are the reasons for the repeated postponement of the 2021 Census? What are its two phases? How will this delay impact administrative functions, welfare schemes and other datasets? Is Census data important to understand migration and migration patterns?


A Census official collects details of a family during the first phase of Census 2011 at a village near Siliguri. | Photo Credit: PTI


The story so far: The decennial Census of 2021 has been pushed forward yet again and is unlikely to start till September 2023, at least. The Additional Registrar General of India communicated to States on January 2, without specifying a reason, that the date of freezing of administrative boundaries has been extended till June 30. The Census can only begin three months after the boundaries have been frozen, and the completion of the Census in its two phases takes at least 11 months. Thus, even if started in an urgent fashion from October this year, the possibility of its fruition in 2023 or early 2024 is ruled out, as general elections are due in March-April 2024.


How is the Census conducted?


How is the Census conducted?

India’s first proper or synchronous Census, one which begins on the same day or year across regions of the country, was carried out in 1881 by the colonial administration and has since happened every 10 years, except the one that was supposed to be carried out in 2021.


The decennial census is carried out by lakhs of enumerators empanelled and trained by the government in two phases. The first phase is the housing Census, where data on housing conditions, household amenities, and assets possessed by households are collected and the second phase is where data on population, education, religion, economic activity, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, language, literacy, migration, and fertility are collected.


The freezing of boundary limits of administrative units such as districts, sub-districts, tehsils, and police stations, happens between two consecutive censuses as State administrations often create new districts or merge, or reorganise the existing units.

How many times has the 2021 Census been delayed?

The Census is still conducted under the Census Act of 1948, which predates the Constitution. Notably, the Act does not bind the government to conduct the Census on a particular date or to release its data in a notified period. The Centre’s intent to conduct the 2021 Census was notified in the Gazette of India on March 28, 2019. The freeze on administrative boundaries was to be effective from January 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, before the COVID-19 pandemic.


In 2020, the census was postponed indefinitely and several requests were received from States for permission to create new units, the date of freezing of boundaries was first extended till December 31, 2020. It was extended again till December 31, 2021, then June 30, 2022 and further again to December 31, 2022. On December 14, 2022, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai informed the Rajya Sabha, “due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census 2021 and the related field activities have been postponed until further orders.” According to UN statistics, multiple countries had delayed their census exercises due to the pandemic, but many of them, like the U.S., U.K., China, and Bangladesh, have completed the count by now.

What are implications of the delay?

The Census data is crucial for various administrative functions, welfare schemes, and other surveys. Former Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai said that “the government should take a quick call and the delay is not good and has ramifications,”. Explaining one of the implications, Mr. Pillai said that the Finance Commission allocates funds to States on the basis of Census figures and any delay could put them at a disadvantage.


Besides, outdated Census information (available from the last Census in 2011) often becomes unreliable and affects those who do and do not receive the benefits of welfare schemes. As per the National Food Security Act, 2013, 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population — totalling 67% of the country’s population — are entitled to receive subsidised food grains from the government under the targeted public distribution system (PDS). According to the 2011 Census, India’s population was about 121 crore, and PDS beneficiaries were approximately 80 crore. However, economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera have pointed out that population growth over the last decade means that if the 67% ratio is applied to 2020’s projected population of 137 crore, PDS coverage should have increased to around 92 crore people.


Former chairperson of the National Statistical Commission, Pronab Sen, told data journalism portal IndiaSpend.com, that Census data are critical for other sample surveys conducted in the country as they use the Census data as a ‘frame’ or list from which a representative sample of the population is selected for surveys. For the latest edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) released last year, it was the 2011 data that served as the sampling frame.

K. Narayanan Unni, a retired officer of the Indian Statistical Service and former Deputy Registrar General wrote in The Hindu, that 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. The provisional data compiled by the RGI till June last year shows the number of districts in the country has increased from 640 in 2011 to 736 presently, sub-districts are up from 5,925 to 6,754, and villages have decreased from 6,40,934 in 2011 to 6,39,083 in 2021. This means significant changes in the demography and the need for amenities from government health to educational facilities. Besides, the Census is crucial to determine the population of migrants and migration patterns. The start of the pandemic saw a sea of migrants on the country’s roads, and the only data available with the government was from 2011, which could not answer queries on the numbers, causes and patterns of migration.


Former bureaucrats also advise, that the exercise of collecting data for the National Population Register (NPR), which was to happen with the first phase of the Census, should now be delinked, owing to its politically sensitive nature and the urgency of the Census.

What about the proposed digital Census?

The upcoming Census will also be the first Census both in digital mode and through paper schedules (questionnaires/forms). In 2022, the Union government amended the Census Rules framed in the year 1990 to allow the details to be captured and stored in an electronic form and also make a provision enabling self-enumeration by respondents. The Home Ministry informed the Parliament in December that mobile and web applications for the collection of data and a portal (CMMS) for management and monitoring of various Census-related activities had been developed at a cost of ₹24.84 crore so far.

  • The decennial Census of 2021 has been pushed forward yet again and is unlikely to start till September 2023, at least.

  • According to UN statistics, multiple countries had delayed their census exercises due to the pandemic, but many of them, like the U.S., U.K., China, and Bangladesh, have completed the count by now.

  • The Census is crucial to determine the population of migrants and migration patterns. The start of the pandemic saw a sea of migrants on the country’s roads, and the only data available with the government was from 2011, which could not answer queries on the numbers, causes and patterns of migration.




 

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