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Editorials/Opinions Analyses For UPSC 22 September 2021


  1. On Census: What counts is seldom counted?

On Census: What counts is seldom counted?


This is the first time that India has not conducted its decadal Census since the exercise began and yet India is busy debating the caste census.


GS-I: Indian Society (Population and its associated issues, Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India), GS-II: Governance (Government Initiatives and Policies)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About the Census (with prelims bits)
  2. What is different about the 2021 census?
  3. Issues with Census and Data Collection
  4. How will the delay affect PDS and other schemes?
  5. Characteristic information Available through the Census
  6. Why Socio Economic and Caste Census is needed?

About the Census (with prelims bits)

  • The census provides information on size, distribution and socio-economic, demographic and other characteristics of the country’s population.
  • The first synchronous census in India was held in 1881, and since then, censuses have been undertaken uninterruptedly once every ten years.
  • India’s last census was carried out in 2011 when the country’s population stood at 121 crores.
  • The Census 2021 will be conducted in 18 languages out of the 22 scheduled languages (under 8th schedule) and English, and the option of “Other” under the gender category will be changed to “Third Gender”.
  • For the first time data is proposed to be collected through a mobile app by enumerators and they will receive an additional payment as an incentive.
  • The last caste-based census was conducted by the British in 1931.
  • Arthashastra by ‘Kautilya’ written in the 3rd Century BC prescribed the collection of population statistics as a measure of state policy for taxation.
  • In India, a census is conducted every decade and Census 2021 will be the 16th national census of the country.

What is different about the 2021 census?

  • It is for the first time the data is collected digitally via mobile applications (installed on enumerator’s phone) with a provision of working in offline mode.
  • The Census Monitoring & Management Portal will act as a single source for all officers/officials involved in Census activities to provide multi-language support.
  • It is for the first time that information of households headed by a person from the Transgender Community and members living in the family will be collected. Earlier there was a column for male and female only.
  • The latest Census (as per the existing plan) will not collect caste data. While the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) was conducted alongside Census 2011, the outcome of the caste Census is yet to be made public.

Issues with Census and Data Collection

  • Though Census has a lot of potential in policymaking, the limited information collected, and the under-utilisation or non-utilisation of Census data, have limited the role of the Census in policymaking.
  • Its importance is further diminished when numerous large-scale surveys are funded by the various ministries of the Government of India. While alternative sources of information have enriched our understanding of population dynamics and facilitated focused interventions, the Census has lost its potential relevance.
  • The engagement with the Census has been limited to two concerns: sex ratio and work participation (female work participation in particular).
  • The fundamental reason why the Census has lost significance is that the data collected are not disseminated on time, despite the use of technology.

How will the delay affect PDS and other schemes?

  • The National Food Security Act, 2013, says that 75% of the rural population and 50% of the rural population — adding up to 67% of the country’s total population — are entitled to receive subsidised food grains from the government under the targeted public distribution system (PDS).
  • Under the 2011 Census, India’s population was about 121 crore, hence PDS covered approximately 80 crore people. However, some economists have pointed out that population growth over the last decade means that if the 67% ratio is applied to 2020’s projected population of 137 crore, PDS coverage should have increased to around 92 crore people.
  • Although Census data may have been initially used to estimate the coverage of the National Social Assistance Programme, which provides basic pension to 3.09 crore widows, disabled and elderly people below the poverty line, the Centre had announced its intent to shift to the Socio-Economic Caste Census data of 2011 instead to determine beneficiaries of the scheme.
  • Most other Central schemes, from health insurance to housing entitlements, use SECC data to estimate their beneficiary coverage, although it is also outdated by almost a decade.
  • The Census measures migration by counting those whose current residence is different from their place of birth, which would give the overall number of migrants, as well as by asking for the last place of residence and the reasons for moving, which allows an understanding of movements and trends over the last decade when compared with previous Census data. Hence, the delay will mean that we will continue to have no answers on how many migrants are likely to be stranded in each city or State and in need of food relief or transport support.

Characteristic information Available through the Census

  • The primary axes of disaggregation of Census-based information are residence, age, gender, administrative units, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and religion.
  • Apart from such disaggregation, the Census offers two units of analysis: at the individual level and at the household level.
  • Attributes of disaggregation are meant for identification and they are more neutral for intervention purposes.

What kind of caste data is published in the Census?

  • Every Census in independent India from 1951 to 2011 has published data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but not on other castes. Before that, every Census until 1931 had data on caste.
  • However, in 1941, caste-based data was collected but not published.
  • In the absence of such a census, there is no proper estimate for the population of OBCs, various groups within the OBCs, and others.
  • The Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population at 52%, some other estimates have been based on National Sample Survey data, and political parties make their own estimates in states and Lok Sabha and Assembly seats during elections.

Why Socio Economic and Caste Census is needed?

  • The current definition of poverty — which was derived by identifying a basket of essential goods and services and marking the point in India’s income distribution where that basket could be purchased by an individual — was missing too much.
  • For one, the numbers seemed absurdly low — set at Rs.816 per person per month in rural areas and Rs. 1,000 in urban areas by the Planning Commission by updating the Tendulkar methodology, the numbers amounted to a daily expenditure of around Rs.30, which caused public indignation. A new committee was formed which drew a new line, but the Rangarajan methodology too wound up at a poverty line not very different from the Tendulkar line.
  • Thus, a broader and more dynamic definition of poverty seemed important. Also, while the general census was about individuals, the SECC was based on households and this gives a more accurate picture of the economic status of families.

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024