India has had a tradition of conducting a national census, every 10 years, for more than a century. It is one of the few countries in the world, not just among developing ones, to have had and maintained this hallowed tradition. The data that is collected is fairly authentic, and the exercise is done with a great deal of integrity. Research using India’s census data has produced thousands of doctorates, new insights into historic policies (both blunders and successes), assisted in various fields and areas, besides which the census data has also provided a reliable economic history of the nation. The decadal census not only captures increases in population, households and family units, but also gives detailed granular date on distribution of age, literacy, fertility and migration.
The census can also throw light on economic status indicators such as employment and income, although the latter is in the domain of the National Statistical Office (NSO). The conduct of the census is under the Registrar General of India, which is under the Home Ministry, whereas the NSSO is under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI).
The 2021 census of India was to be carried out in two phases; the first is counting of dwellings and houses, and the second is enumeration of the population. The Government notified via the Official Gazette in March 2019, its intent of conducting the once-in-a-decade census. Before a census exercise commences, it is important to freeze the jurisdictional limits such as towns, villages, districts and census towns. The first phase was to be conducted from April to September 2020, and the second phase thereafter, so that by mid 2021 the preliminary numbers would be ready for release. The pandemic upset this timetable. Initially the freezing of boundaries was postponed till the end of 2020, and then again till the end of 2021. There have been three postponements since then, and the latest notice from the Registrar General of India (which is under the Home Ministry) says that the deadline for freezing of boundaries is extended to the end of June 2023. Given that it takes about 10 or 11 months for the census exercise to be properly conducted, it could interfere with the national elections due to be held in April or May 2024. Effectively, it thus appears that the 2021 census has been put off by four years, using the pandemic and vaccination drive as an alibi. It will be difficult to conduct the census unless a much shortened and hence imperfect method is used between July 2023 and March 2024. But that is unlikely.
This has huge consequences. Firstly, the National Food Security Act mandates that 75% of rural, and 50% of urban households be covered by the Act. The Government recently made NFSA entitlement free for 81 crore people. But this number is based on the 2011 census. Population projections till 2022 suggest that the number is short by at least 10 crore. That has serious implication for the food security and nutrition status of a large number of households, especially children. Secondly, various other Government schemes, like pensions for the elderly (National Social Assistance Programme) could miss their target by a huge margin since accurate census estimates are not available. The budgeting for these programmes needs to have an accurate estimate of the size of the beneficiaries.
Thirdly, India badly needs accurate information about migrants. A migrant is defined in the census as one who works in a place different from the place of birth. How many migrants are there? How many seasonal and how many long-term? The Covid lockdown revealed lakhs (or maybe crores) of people who were migrant city workers and who had to make long treks back to their villages on foot. Only a proper and updated census can throw light on the true migrant picture. Fourth is the assessment of various schemes and programmes of the Government. What is the status of the Prime Minister’s Awas (housing) Yojana? How many toilets built under Swachh Bharat are functioning? What is the status of piped water supply to households? Thousands of such questions can be answered when we analyse granular data from the census. The census is not a substitute for a Government audit or a social audit. But since its data is authentic and verifiable, it can throw an effective spotlight and serves as a tool for ensuring accountability from the Government.
That is why the 2001 report of the Dr Rangarajan Commission report on an overhaul of India’s Statistical System is very important. It has recommended the establishment of a permanent commission on statistics to serve as a nodal and empowered body, answerable to Parliament and not to the Government. That is still a piece of unfinished business, in spirit at least. An empowered NSC (National Statistical Commission) would work in coordination with the Registrar General of India (RGI) who is responsible for the census and is under the Home Ministry.
Credible, authentic data is like a public good. Hence its collection requires a great deal of integrity, and also regularity and predictability. A lot of public and private planning as well as economic activity depends on public data, be it on population, GDP, consumption, movement of migrants, or distribution of income and wealth. A few years ago, the detailed survey-based data on consumer expenditure, conducted under the authority of the NSC, was suppressed. In protest or otherwise, all members of the NSC resigned. Now the NSC has been reconstituted. But this is reason for disquiet. The basis for authenticity and reliability of public data, be it census or economy, is the trust people place in the bodies tasked with collecting the data. Any delay or abrupt suppression is cause for distrust. Even if there are imperfections it is best to release the data for the public at large, and experts to analye and dissect it. The present delay in conducting the national census, when even our South Asian neighbours have conducted theirs despite Covid difficulties, is cause for concern. It is best if the Government finds a way of shortening the process, using modern digital techniques to quickly and in real-time triangulate and validate the data, and release preliminary data into the public domain at the earliest.
Dr Ajit Ranade is a noted economist (Syndicate: The Billion Press, email: [email protected])