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Survey As a Substitute for Census


In her Interim Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a noteworthy announcement, stating that a high-powered committee would be established to address the challenges arising from “rapid population growth and demographic changes.” The Union government has repeatedly delayed the decennial Census, which has not been conducted for the first time in a decade since 1881. This postponement raises questions about the basis for Sitharaman’s statement.


  • GS-1- Population and Associated Issues
  • GS-2- Government Policies and Interventions

Mains Question:

Multiple surveys present data that provide a way to substitute the Census- that is yet to be conducted for this decade. Comment critically. (10 Marks, 150 Words).

About the Census:

  • Population Census involves the comprehensive process of gathering, organizing, analyzing, and disseminating demographic, economic, and social data concerning all individuals within a country or a well-defined region at a specific point in time.
  • The Census serves as the foundation for assessing a country’s progress over the past decade, monitoring ongoing government initiatives, and planning for the future. It offers an instantaneous snapshot of a community, valid at a specific moment.
  • The Census Operations in India occur in two phases: Houselisting/Housing Census, which records details of all buildings (permanent or temporary) with their type, amenities, and assets, and Population Enumeration, which gathers more detailed information on each individual, whether an Indian national or otherwise. The enumeration is conducted after creating a list of all households to be surveyed.
  • The first synchronized census in India took place in 1881, initiated by W.C. Plowden, the Census Commissioner of India. Since then, censuses have been consistently carried out once every ten years.
  • While the Census of India Act of 1948 provides the legal framework, it does not specify the timing or periodicity. Although the Indian Constitution mandates a Census, there is no constitutional or legal requirement for it to be conducted decennially.
  • The ten-year frequency aligns with many countries, such as the US and the UK, while others like Australia, Canada, and Japan conduct it every five years.
  • The decennial Census in India is overseen by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, Ministry of Home Affairs.
  • Initially, until 1951, the Census Organization was established on an ad-hoc basis for each Census.

Relevant Statistics:

  • Although India is now recognized as the most populous country, recent data from the Sample Registration System statistical report in 2020 and the National Family Health Survey 5 (2019-21) indicate a decline in the total fertility rate (TFR) to 2 overall.
  • Only a few states, namely Bihar (2.98), Meghalaya (2.91), Uttar Pradesh (2.35), Jharkhand (2.26), and Manipur (2.17), have a TFR above 2.1.
  • It is evident that the high population growth observed in the 20th century has been significantly curtailed. The TFR dropped from 5.7 in 1950 to 2 in 2020, albeit with regional variations.
  • The southern states’ population share decreased from 26% in 1951 to 21% in 2011, primarily due to a rapid reduction in TFR resulting from improved socioeconomic conditions and education, despite increased migration to these states.

Delay in Census:

  • While the mentioned surveys are robust and essential, they cannot substitute for a comprehensive Census.
  • The prolonged delay in its execution reflects poorly on the Union Home Ministry, suggesting a lack of priority for this crucial aspect of Indian governance in favor of other motives.
  • The changing demographics in India and the increasing life expectancy present both challenges and opportunities.
  • The widely discussed demographic dividend, which refers to a higher proportion of the working-age population in developing countries, holds significance only if there are enough jobs available and if individuals have some form of social security as they age.
  • The potential of this dividend may be at risk due to high unemployment rates and the slow growth of non-farm jobs, which are crucial for increasing productivity and providing opportunities for skilled employment.
  • Disrupting the regular census schedule may yield data that is not comparable to previous datasets, posing challenges in analyzing trends and formulating well-informed policy decisions.
  • Relying on 12-year-old data in a dynamic context can undermine the reliability of information, potentially affecting various indicators for India and impacting the effectiveness and efficiency of developmental initiatives across sectors.
  • Census delays can have consequences for the allocation of seats for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in governing bodies.
  • Continued reliance on 2011 Census data may lead to inaccurate seat reservations, especially in areas where significant changes in population composition have occurred over the last decade.
  • The delay can disrupt government schemes and programs, leading to unreliable estimates in surveys related to consumption, health, and employment that depend on census data.
  • This could adversely affect policy and welfare measures, with an estimated 100 million people potentially being excluded from the Public Distribution System (PDS) food subsidy program due to outdated population figures from the 2011 census.
  • Houselisting, a year-long process, is critical for updating information on addresses in a country with an inadequate address system.
  • Delaying the census renders the list outdated, potentially resulting in incomplete or inaccurate information, thereby compromising the reliability of subsequent population enumeration and data collection.
  • Outdated 2011 Census data fails to address vital questions about migration, such as numbers, causes, and patterns. This information gap became evident during the Covid lockdown when migrant workers faced challenges without proper government support.
  • The forthcoming Census is expected to capture the scale and patterns of migration, helping to identify healthcare and social service needs specific to migrants, offering essential insights for targeted support and services.


The formation of a high-powered committee is pivotal, particularly if it actively addresses concerns related to employment, social security, and the issues arising from rapid urbanization and mechanization of work. However, if the committee chooses to focus on the ruling party’s particular concerns regarding population matters tied to religion and immigration, it may divert governance from effectively utilizing the diminishing demographic dividend in the country.

February 2024