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Delaying Census conveys sense of ignorance, to 'adversely impact' development goals

By Srinivas Goli, Udaya S Mishra* 

The commencement of the Census 2021 operations has been postponed once again. Earlier it was postponed owing to COVID-19, while this time, it is reasoned with the delay in the process of freezing administrative boundaries across states, which has now been extended till June 30.
This is the fourth extension for freezing administrative boundaries of districts, tehsils, talukas and police stations according to government norms. Going by the conventional method of Census of India operations, a Census can be carried out only three months after the freezing of administrative boundaries.
Initially, the first phase of Census 2021 was originally slated to be held between April to September 2020. During this phase, the Census of India operation involves a Housing Census and an updating of the National Population Register, which lists all usual residents of India.
The second phase of the Census operation was scheduled to be completed by March 5, 2021, that constitutes the Census exercise involving population enumeration and socio-economic data collection. As of today, there is no clarity on the timeline for Census 2021.
In fact, it seems quite unlikely that the main Census operations can be initiated prior to the 2024 general elections. This is quite disheartening that this unique and uninterrupted chronology of conducting decennial Census since 1872 is disrupted in 2021 that remains under a cloud of uncertainty.
A genuine question therefore relates to the possible implications of this disruption on the ongoing development initiatives in terms of a wide range of programmes and generic governance mechanism in place. Census information serves as a backbone of population count and characteristics that can be considered as a fundamental information base for several programmes functioning under the aegis of various ministries, non-governmental and private organizations.
Besides offering a population count with age-sex divide at various administrative jurisdictions, Census serves as the goldmine for information on births, deaths, economic activity, education, housing and household amenities, rural-urban composition and migration numbers along with social, religious and language composition of the population.
An attempt is made here to elaborate on the implication of a delayed Census on reading the development trajectory as Census offers an understanding of changing dynamics of human population and its responsiveness to the process of development.

Hampering governance, planning and budgetary allocations

Geographical and administrative disaggregation of the population is critical for both governance and budgetary allocations. Population size across the villages, blocks and districts is key for provisioning of services like setting-up of schools, hospitals, transport services and allocation of doctors and other health workers and many other developmental activities.
Changing administrative boundaries and redesignation of administrative units are nothing new and have not been an impediment to conduct of the Census. There are routine changes to redefining and redesignating administrative units between Censuses with adequate hints to compare population features of such units across various Census years. In 2011, there were 640 districts and 5,924 sub-districts.
But if we go by the Health Management Information System (HMIS) portal of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, currently, there are 763 districts and 6858 sub-districts. We need the basic demographic and socio-economic information required for governance, budgetary allocations and programme implementations for all newly formed districts and the districts from which these newly formed are carved out.
The population size statistics across the administrative boundaries also facilitates generating information according to new administrative set-ups like new parliamentary constituencies, revenue offices and police stations to ease the governance burden.
Population statistics also remains critical for many other purposes like setting of business, commerce and industry.

No updated count of beneficiaries for developmental assistance

Census is the most credible source of information on the number of people of different ages by gender, socio-economic (caste, religion, marital status and economic activities and housing conditions) and disability characteristics. These characteristic count in terms of old age, dependents, widows and the disabled serves towards making appropriate assessment of the required budgets for various welfare schemes.
In the absence of Census, there is every possibility of evolving a development architecture ignoring its human component
Similarly, workers and migration statistics helps in economic planning and designing social security policies. The caste Census supports in planning and budgeting sanctions for various social welfare programmes. The number of women, girl children and adolescent girl statistics are necessary for women and child development programmes. The examples pointed out here are only the tip of the ice burg. Numbers that emerge from Census are key for counting beneficiaries for developmental assistance under several social safety nets.
Although one can derive approximate numbers from large-scale national-level surveys which is no replacement to complete enumeration count especially at the smaller geographical disaggregation.

Interruption in monitoring demographic and socio-economic changes

Despite having a large-scale sample survey that gives demographic and socio-economic information over the period, Census is considered to be gold standard information on several demographic and socio-economic data. 
In particular, studying successive Census information helps understand changes in the population's demographic and socio-economic composition. Such observation is critical for socio-economic planning. In fact, inter-censal figures are derived based on Census count that represents the figure for the intermittent years.

Hindrance for planning sample surveys, research and advocacy

Census serves as the master frame for the design of large-scale sample surveys. The sampling design of the surveys uses a house listing information from Census to draw a population-based representative sample.
Census is also a key data source for research and teaching across several social science disciplines. And, research is the critical process for the advocacy of policy suggestions. Researchers often use Census information to validate the information emerging from other sources such as sample surveys, civil registration systems and other administrative data. Therefore, updated Census information helps to validate previous projections and baseline information for future predictions.

Reading attributes of social inclusion and compromise in human rights

As Census counts people of different social backgrounds, this information helps in evaluation of representational valuation of varying social identities in spaces like labour market sectors and political participation etc. Underrepresentation of a particular social group compared to their population share is a sign of social exclusion and a violation of human rights. Census based information helps a great deal in reading social inclusion and violation of human rights.
In sum, delaying Census conveys a sense of ignorance as regard its potential bearing on varying facets of reading development. It is not merely a population count with characteristics but a mirror exhibiting the evolving societal order in many ways. From living to livelihood, divides to convergence and exclusion to inclusion is largely understood with Census inputs.
In the absence of Census, there is every possibility of evolving a development architecture ignoring its human component. Overall, we say that ‘delaying Census is like delaying a lifeline of development'. The government of India need to recognize its urgency and find ways to expedite the process of conducting the regular Census, but also Caste Census.
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*Respectively: Associate Professor and Professor at International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. Views are personal

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