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The implications of a delayed census on India's policy landscape

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Writer: Kuhuo Bajaj

Editor: Lavanya Goswami

Keywords: Census, Sample surveys, Delay, Policy-making, Data Quality, Delimitation, Democracy



INTRODUCTION

Census is the process of collecting, compiling, analyzing and publishing demographic, economic and social data about a specific population. The decennial census in India is conducted by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, Ministry of Home Affairs, under the Census Act, 1948. In 1881, more than 250 million people answered a list of sometimes puzzling questions put to them by hundreds of enumerators, and were counted in British India's first synchronized census.


WHY THE DELAY?

For the next 130 years, after independence even through wars and other crises, India kept its date with the census. Every decade, thousands of enumerators visited every household in the country to collect data regarding individuals' occupations, family structures, economic situations, migration histories, and sociocultural attributes, among numerous other parameters. However, the 16th Census, scheduled for 2021, got postponed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, the Office of the Registrar General of India announced that the date of freezing the administrative boundaries had been extended from December 31, 2022, to July 1, 2023. This meant that the exercise would begin only in 2023, spilling well into 2024. Although the Census Act, 1948 does not bind the Union Government into conducting the census on a particular date or into releasing its data in a notified period, the delay negatively impacts policy making and implementation.


WHAT NEW DOES THE 16th CENSUS BRING TO THE TABLE?

The highly anticipated 16th census promises a shift in data collection and analysis, aligning with its theme "Jan Bhagidari se Jan Kalyaan" which underscores the importance of community participation for the welfare of all citizens. The census will also meticulously count households headed by transgender people, ensuring their visibility in demographic statistics. Embracing the digital age, this census aims to harness digital data collection methods, like self-enumeration and a dedicated census monitoring and management portal. These new additions aim at reducing costs and gathering more precise data, but at the same time they give way to concerns like state surveillance and digital data-tampering.


CURRENT DATA MATTERS TO WHAT EXTENT?

According to Pronab Sen, former Chief Statistician of India, “The quality of any statistical survey depends on census data. The census is critical. You need basic data about the country for planning and, like any projection exercise, the greater the period over which you’re projecting, the less accurate the projection becomes.” Over a span of almost 15 years, not only the demographics, but also geo-political landscapes of a country change. New borders are outlined and thus, newer population sub-groups are created. Without an updated census, it is impossible to make accurate, efficient and implementable policies. In the absence of the latest population census data, many policies depend on 2011 census figures which cause a severe mismatch between the planning and implementation of those policies. For instance, food grains allocated to states under the Central quota are based on 2011 census figures. Not updating them may deprive many people in rapidly growing states like Uttar Pradesh.


EFFECT OF DELAY ON POLICY MAKING

Census plays a pivotal role in guiding evidence-based decision-making, serving as a cornerstone for a multitude of sectors. Its data is harnessed not only by governmental bodies but also by NGOs, researchers, and private enterprises. This vast pool of information, collected meticulously, spans various disciplines including social, economic, cultural and demographic parameters. For policymakers, the census acts as a compass, leading them from the very dwelling unit to the delivery of resources. The wealth of data facilitates coherent policy-making, enabling the optimization of resources. Moreover, it empowers local authorities, granting them access to pertinent information for targeted development efforts, ensuring efficient program implementation, especially for the marginalized sections of society. Without a revised census, decisions are not well equipped to plan and implement policy measures and analyze the ground-level effectiveness. Further, it hampers the ability to track trends, study population dynamics, and assess the impact of policies accurately. For example, a shift in the poverty line even by a dollar can mean millions of people are added or removed from social welfare schemes and transfer benefits. Without an updated census, we can neither accurately assess this number nor make effective policies.


WHY CAN’T WE DO SAMPLE SURVEYS INSTEAD?

Institutions like National Sample Survey Organisation, National Council of Educational Research and Training, and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) periodically do their own sample surveys and release reports and analysis for their policies. However, even they depend directly or indirectly on the Census for their sampling methodologies and selections. For example, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), done every 3 years by MoHWF, takes the 2011 Census as the sampling frame (the list from which a survey sample is drawn) for the selection of primary sampling units on household health and family welfare. Hence if the foundation of the sample survey is outdated, its findings ought to be skewed to some degree.


DOES THE CENSUS AFFECT DEMOCRACY?

Census data is also used for the demarcation of constituencies and allocation of representation to the Parliament, State Legislative Assemblies and local bodies. Under Article 82, the Parliament enacts a Delimitation Act after every Census. Delimitation literally means the act or process of fixing limits or boundaries of territorial constituencies in a country or a province having a legislative body. This provides equal representation to equal segments of a population and a fair political division of geographic areas. As population and other demographic indicators keep fluctuating, a delay in census, and by extension, a delay in the delimitation process, can lead to significant disparities in political representation. It may result in some constituencies being overrepresented, while others being underrepresented, skewing the balance of power and distorting the democratic process. Additionally, it may undermine the fair allocation of resources and political influence, as constituencies may not accurately reflect the changing demographic landscape.


CONCLUSION

The census stands as a cornerstone of data-driven governance and equitable representation. The delay in conducting the 16th Census, exacerbated by the pandemic and other reasons, casts a long shadow over informed decision-making. It adversely affects policy formulation, causing a glaring mismatch between planning and implementation. The delay’s repercussions resonate far beyond the counting of heads; they resonate in the very fabric of our nation’s decision-making process.


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