Census 2021 – UPSC GS1

Background
  • The census exercise first began in 1865 with a pen and paper.
  • The upcoming 2021 census exercise is the sixteenth census in the country and eighth census after independence.
  • While it has been undertaken every 10 years, beginning in 1872 under British Viceroy Lord Mayo, the first complete census was taken in 1881.
  • Post-1949, it has been conducted by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
  • All the censuses since 1951 were conducted under the 1948 Census of India Act.
  • In March 2019, the government had announced that next census will be conducted in two phases with 1 March 2021 as the reference date. For Jammu and Kashmir and snow-bound areas of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh the reference date shall be the 1 October 2020.
Census 2021
  • The Census 2021 will be conducted in 18 languages out of the 22 scheduled languages (under 8th schedule) and English, while Census 2011 was in 16 of the 22 scheduled languages declared at that time.
  • It also will introduce a code directory to streamline the process
  • The option of “Other” under the gender category will be changed to “Third Gender”.
  • There were roughly 5 lakh people under “other” category in 2011.
  • For the first time in the 140 year history of the census in India, data is proposed to be collected through a mobile app by enumerators and they will receive an additional payment as an incentive.
  • Union Home Minister Amit Shah has mooted the idea of a multipurpose identity card for citizens with all utilities such as Aadhaar, bank accounts, passport and driving licence.
  • National Population Register (NPR) is being prepared for the first time in 2021 census. NPR is a list of usual residents of the country which could be the basis for a pan-India version of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC). The data for NPR will also be collected along with the census exercise.
  • The Census data would be available by the year 2024-25 as the entire process would be conducted digitally and data crunching would be quicker.
Issues with the Census
(1) Data quality issues :
  • The past four decades have seen a decline in the quality of data and growing delays in its release despite technological innovations.
  • The use of census data in delimitation and federal redistribution has been questioned on grounds of poor quality, while the Covid-19 pandemic revealed the obsolete and poor quality of data on internal migration.
(2) No major reforms
  • The legal foundation of the census has remained largely unchanged since newly independent India enacted permanent census legislation in 1948.
  • Despite sustained problems, the census has not seen any major reform after 1994 when both the Census Act, 1948 and Census Rules, 1990 were amended.
(3) Old methods and questionnaire
  • The methodological core – extended de facto (synchronous) canvasser-based enumeration – too has remained intact even though the length and layout of schedules changed quite a bit.
  • The Household Schedule, for instance, grew with the footprint of the state, from 14 questions in 1951 to 29 questions in 2011.
(4) Workforce issues
  • Data collection has not kept pace with improvements in data processing technology due to the lack of motivated and adequately trained enumerators.
  • Given the high salaries of school teachers, the modest honorarium paid for census work does not cover the opportunity cost of conducting the door-to-door enumeration.
Purpose of Census:
(a) Resource allocations
  • First, census facilitates the rule-based distribution of power and resources through constitutionally mandated redistribution of taxes, delimitation of electoral constituencies and affirmative action policies.
  • It is also used in routine policy-making across tiers of government.
(b) Population projections
  • Second, census serves as the sampling frame for surveys and is also the basis of population projections.
  • Other routine policies require distribution of the headcount by households, marital status, age, sex, literacy, migrant status, and mother tongue.
  • Put together, these variables are sufficient for choosing representative samples for surveys.
What can be done?
1.Cut the questions
  • Nearly half of the ‘House listing and Housing Schedule’ of the census is devoted to questions on household amenities and assets.
  • These questions can be dropped because the information can be more appropriately collected through sample surveys and administrative statistics.
  • Why put fewer questions?
    • It will improve data quality by reducing the workload of enumerators.
    • It will also free up senior census officials and help revive the earlier tradition of producing detailed administrative and other reports crucial for understanding the context of data.
    • Shorter schedules will seem less invasive and assure respondents uncomfortable with sharing too many details.
    • It will cut down processing time and help in reducing delays in the release of data.
2.Dealing with data manipulation
  • There is poor accounting of migrants that distorts estimates of urbanisation as well as the inter-state distribution of the population.
  • There exists grassroots manipulation of data-driven by political and economic considerations.
  • There is a need to demystify census operations and build trust in the impartiality of the exercise, better scrutiny of electoral records and welfare schemes to weed out bogus beneficiaries.
Conclusion
These reforms are essential to ensure that the census exercise is able to fulfil its constitutional, policy and statistical obligations and also clear the ground for debates on the future of census in the digital era.
Related Questions:
  • The Census of India needs a basic overhaul beyond its procedural digitization. Critically analyse.