Aakar Patel | Why, for the first time in 150 years, India’s Census won’t be on time

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

Since 1881, even during wars in the past, it has never been postponed

Citing the Covid-19 pandemic, the Narendra Modi government says that it cannot be done now. (Representational Image)

India’s Census has been delayed again, indefinitely, making it the first time in 150 years that it will not come on time. Let us understand why. It was supposed to be finished last year, but was not. Since 1881, even during wars in the past, it has never been postponed. The reason is that the Census is our largest data collection exercise. Not only does it give us a count of the number of people in India, it also tells us about their education, what their household amenities are, their employment status and so on. Delaying this means not only that we will not know what the numbers on these things, are but also that the government cannot make policy properly because it is unclear what needs to be targeted.

Citing the Covid-19 pandemic, the Narendra Modi government says that it cannot be done now. That is, however, not the real reason. Two other large surveys in the past also ran into trouble with this government. One was the consumer expenditure survey. This showed that Indians were consuming less, including on food, in 2018 than they were in 2012. After the details of this survey were published by a newspaper in 2019, the government refused to release the data officially. This survey, called the quinquennial (meaning every five years), also gives us data on India’s large informal sector economy. For 10 years now, we have not had any information on this. The previous chief economic adviser to the finance ministry, Krishnamurthy Subramanian, had asked the government to release the survey data, but that didn’t happen. It is dangerous for India to look away from bad news, especially if it’s the government itself that is the source of the news. However, this has long been the case with this government. Also in 2019, it was revealed by another government survey that unemployment in 2018 was at a historic high of six per cent, and twice as high as it had ever been after Independence. This survey was also reported by the same newspaper, and again it was discredited by the government. The Niti Aayog was sent out to say that the data was faulty, though after the 2019 election results came in, this survey was released officially without any change. The unemployment rate has not fallen under that since then and has remained above that for four years.

To add to our problems, the mistrust of the government because of its citizenship laws means that enumerators will find it difficult to get neighbourhoods to cooperate. The National Population Register, the first step of the National Register of Citizens, has been added on to the Census by the Modi government. Meaning that it will give the government and lower bureaucrats the authority to mark anyone they want as “doubtful citizens”. This will strip them of voting rights, and begin a process that goes through a National Register of Citizens list, a Foreigners’ Tribunal and ends in a detention centre. What happens after that, including the jailing of entire families, men separated from women, we have already seen unfolding in Assam.

Given this, the enumerators, low-level employees such as government school teachers, will likely face hostility once they start asking questions. India’s former chief statistician Pronab Sen has said we “may well have a situation where you are unable to do the Census properly and if the Census is not done properly, then for the next 10 years, no household survey would be reliable because all household surveys rely on the Census as the frame. If this runs into problems, and there’s a danger that it might, then for the next 11 years, you are in trouble.”

Yet another problem is that some states have said that they will not implement it. Kerala informed the Centre it will not implement the NPR, fearing law and order problems. It has also challenged the Citizenship Amendment Act in the Supreme Court. Madhya Pradesh said in the past it will not implement it, and in Maharashtra too there is opposition.

Other states like West Bengal have encouraged citizens to resist the enumerator and not show them any documents. Yet other states have said they will implement the NPR only partially (Odisha and Bihar), leaving out some questions. Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot has said they will not allow their citizens to be jailed and instead go to jail themselves first. At the federal level, then, it is clear that the incoming data, even if it is gathered, will be incomplete and fragmented.

This is possibly and perhaps most likely the real reason why the Census is getting delayed. The government doesn’t want to get into another set of mass protests, but it is also unwilling to let go of its NPR-NRC pincer. If the Prime Minister says clearly there will be no NRC and the Census will drop the NPR questions, the Census will proceed. He will not.

The Indian State will exhaust itself trying to implement the NRC for which there is no demand from any major section, which has resistance from not just parts of the polity, including the Opposition states, but also mass mobilisation of the sort we have not seen in a long time.

What is at stake is credible data for an entire decade. But it appears that the government is comfortable with not having any data on the economy and the condition of Indians, particularly given that the data is not going to be positive. That is the reason we have broken our tradition, which we have had since 1881, of a Census that is on time and tells us the condition of India.