India’s decadal Census is an exercise of substantial scope and complexity. It requires the listing of every dwelling in the country and then a detailed population enumeration. Yet, even so, this exercise has been carried out at the beginning of every decade for over a century — except the current one. The 2021 Census was postponed because of the additional burden placed upon the process by the pandemic and associated restrictions on movement and social-distancing requirements. Yet those restrictions have been almost entirely lifted for over a year now. And still, according to a recent report in this newspaper, very little effort has been made to restart the Census process. The conclusion that many well-informed officials and observers have reached is that the Census 2021 will not begin to be conducted until after the next Lok Sabha elections, which are likely to take place in April-May 2024.
This is unconscionable delay. The Census is the basic building block of many instruments of state policy that are essential for the proper provision of goods, the effectiveness of governance, and even for ensuring a fair and just division of expenditure across regions and target groups. Surveys on households, jobs and other items can only complement the Census, not replace it. In fact, the Census acts as a crucial corrective on such surveys, estimates, and extrapolations. Without the actual enumeration of population characteristics, policymakers are left groping in the dark. As India develops a more complex welfare state, the need for the Census increases in urgency and does not decrease. A recent directive from the Supreme Court regarding the distribution of benefits under the National Food Security Act underlines the centrality of the Census to India’s welfare mechanisms. And, recent population figures are now also relevant for the division of the pool of taxes across states, among other politically sensitive decisions. The lack of urgency with which the government is approaching such a foundational part of its duties and responsibilities is dispiriting.
The next Census should in any case be easier to conduct, given that the government plans to experiment with the benefits that might be provided by digitising part of the process. New methods of enumeration have been notified, including “self-enumeration” by the respondents themselves and also the electronic submission of data. These can be worked into the Census as options, and can speed up the process. Other countries, including the US, have done so with positive results in the post-pandemic period.
The importance of the Census might paradoxically be working as an incentive for decision makers to in fact postpone it. Given its implications for federal tax- and power-sharing, as well as for caste and welfare politics, it is possible that the government wants to ensure that the next Lok Sabha elections at least are not influenced by the Census’ outcomes. Yet waiting till after the elections would leave very little time before, for example, the next constituency delimitation exercise in 2027. Certainly, that would not be enough time to build up a political consensus for drastic changes based on the new Census data. Recent history has shown that the creation of such buy-in is crucial for successful reform. The government cannot afford to postpone the Census indefinitely.