Why has the government put the census on hold?

Why has the government put the census on hold? | The Probe Podumentary

Why has the government put the census on hold and how has it impacted us? Hear this latest episode of our Podumentary!
First Published: Nov 30,2022 02:39PM

Last Updated on November 30, 2022

 

The last government of India census was conducted in 2011, and the next exercise was to have taken place in 2021. The government could not meet the 2021 timeline because of the Covid pandemic. But unfortunately, the census exercise continues to be delayed even when other pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted in the country. Why has the government put the census on hold and how has it impacted us? Hear this Podumentary out!

 

Speakers: 

Avani Kapur

Senior Fellow

Centre for Policy Research

 

Mala Ramanathan 

Professor, Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies, Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology 

 

PC Mohanan

Former Acting Chairperson

National Statistical Commission 

 

Sonalde Desai 

Professor | Director 

NCAER – National Data Innovation Centre, Delhi 

 

Udaya Shankar Mishra 

Professor

Centre For Development Studies

Produced below are the abridged version of the transcripts of our Podumentary (audio documentary) titled: Why has the government put the census on hold?

The last government of India census was conducted in 2011, and the next exercise was to have taken place in 2021. The government could not meet the 2021 timeline because of the Covid pandemic. But unfortunately, the census exercise continues to be delayed even when other pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted in the country.

PC Mohanan, the former acting Chairperson of the National Statistical Commission, says that several countries have conducted the census exercise during Covid-19, and it’s time the Indian government completes it. “As you know, the census in India has been considered a very sacrosanct exercise, and all along, without any break, we had our censuses. So, this census getting postponed is a very important issue. The last census was in 2011, and most of the government agencies have worked with only the 2011 data. Now, if you go to a small panchayat or a block or taluk or the district level, you find them planning or projecting the requirement either based on the 2011 census population or some old projections. So, it is absolutely important that they have the latest numbers to make the most of government schemes.”

Currently, there is no clarity on when the next census exercise will be concretely held. Earlier, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai told the Parliament that all census-related activities have been “postponed till further orders” due to the pandemic. Avani Kapur, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, finds that India lags on too many counts because of the missing census data.

“It is useful to remind ourselves of the different aspects measured with a national census. Firstly, the census gives a sense of the total number of people in a country at a specific point in time. And while there are population projections, the census would provide you with an accurate number by age, by sex of the total number of people in the country. It also gives a sense of the standard of living. Right now, in India, we don’t have any recent poverty estimates. But through the census, by looking at the measures of assets that people have, you could get a sense of the standard of living of the population in the country. Census also gives you a sense of urbanisation. The census is also one of the few sources with migration data.”

The delay in the census exercise has severe implications for India’s economy. It has already had an impact on resource allocation by the government. The US conducted its first digital census during the thick of the pandemic in 2020. The UK and China too conducted the exercise during Covid-19. Sonalde Desai, Professor and Director of NCAER – National Data Innovation Centre, asks why this extremely important exercise is being indefinitely delayed.

“I think there is no doubt that it is very useful to have censuses done every ten years. However, it is equally important that the census is done accurately and that it does not lead to any other negative consequences. So, let me give you an example, the United States actually managed to do its 2020 census because they did not have to do it face to face. They could do it as a web-based census. They could do it as a mail census and so on. However, as a result, what happened was that they ended up having a substantial undercount in some of the states, which were not well covered through the web-based systems. So, for example, states like Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the United States, have a 5% undercount in the census. So, I think that no doubt we need to have a census, but we also need to have an accurate census.”

Reports reveal that nearly 100 million people are being excluded from the government’s food subsidy programme as the population figures used to calculate the number of beneficiaries of the scheme are still based on the old 2011 census data. The government has notified that the next census will be India’s first digital census.

Udaya Shankar Mishra, a Professor with the Centre For Development Studies, says the broken census pattern would require a lot of computations, and therefore this exercise cannot be delayed any further. “Conducting periodic census is a must and because of the broken pattern of our census, we would now have to do a lot of computations to adjust it to the period 2021 for comparison purposes.”

The lack of data has already started impacting the government’s policies and execution. Many of the schemes of the government are based on the 2011 census data. The increase in population, coupled with the problem of lack of statistical data, has led to the exclusion of many people from accessing government schemes. Mala Ramanathan, Professor with the Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies, Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology says the government must allocate adequate resources for census exercise and perhaps a meticulously planned digital census could lead the way.

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