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How many Indians are there really? India isn't ready for the answer

Centre has a somewhat difficult relationship with data. Various surveys and calculations, from the national income accounts to household consumption patterns and jobs data, have been cancelled

Photo: Bloomberg

Photo: Bloomberg

Bloomberg
By Mihir Sharma

This week, the United Nations informed the world that India was now its most populous nation. According to the UN, there are now 1.428 billion people in India, as opposed to a mere 1.426 billion in China. When asked about this, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson sounded dismissive: “I want to tell you that population dividend does not depend on quantity but also quality.”
I would love to reply in kind — except I don’t even know if the UN’s claim is correct. Are we already the biggest country in the world? Perhaps. But most projections of India’s population are based on decades-old data, because India hasn’t conducted a proper census since 2011.

India’s parliamentary elections, every five years, are generally agreed to be the world’s most impressive public exercise. In some ways, India’s census is even more remarkable in its scale, efficiency and integrity. Once every decade, for over a century, every Indian and their household’s characteristics have been enumerated.

In 2020, however, pandemic-hit India postponed the census and claimed at first it would shift online — as was tried in the US, for example. Yet things have returned to normal, in India as elsewhere, and there’s no sign of preparations for a census, online or off.

India’s current government has a somewhat difficult relationship with data. Various surveys and calculations, from the national income accounts to household consumption patterns and jobs data, have been cancelled or reviewed over the past seven years.

This census was set to be even more politically explosive. In famously diverse India, the census provides the last word on the relative sizes of various groups. And those numbers don’t just determine their voting power in democratic India, but also the distribution of welfare and public services. Without an accurate census, Indian policymakers are fumbling in the dark.

Unfortunately, the demographic composition of Indians — what caste they were born into, where they live, and what religion they profess — is now exceptionally controversial.

Consider caste, for example. Not since 1931 has India determined the exact caste composition of its population. And yet our huge affirmative action system — with job and educational quotas earmarked for various caste groups — is based on that data. Any big shifts in the numbers would certainly impact caste-based political mobilization, and the government is unwilling to do the counting.  

Then there’s religion. If minorities’ numbers have increased “too much,” there would be an outcry from the right-wing; if they haven’t, it becomes harder for politicians to tell Hindus that they are in demographic danger.

Meanwhile, this Census was also supposed to be the first step toward creating a National Register of Citizens — a plan which, together with changes to citizenship law, caused huge nationwide protests in 2019 because of fears it could render many Indian Muslims stateless. Nobody is eager to start up that argument again.

Even more potentially problematic are the numbers for language groups and state origins. India is a country of two halves: one with a rapidly growing population, and the other aging just as rapidly. By 2041, according to government estimates, the northern state of Bihar will have added 50 million people to its strength of 104 million in the 2011 Census. The southern state of Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, will have begun to shrink. Worse, the shrinking states are mostly ruled by strong regional parties, don’t speak the same language as the north, and are much richer.

New population numbers may mean that these states’ share of seats in the national parliament will decline, leaving them with little voice in New Delhi’s decisions. Inter-regional transfers in India, already high, will increase. One state finance minister has complained that sending local taxes north is “like throwing money down the well.”

Finally, there’s employment. India has no reliable data about how many jobs are being created for its hundreds of millions of young people. Two government surveys that estimated unemployment were shut down in 2017 and 2018. But the 2011 Census did tell us that 28% of households had somebody “seeking or available for work,” and that there were 47 million unemployed people between the ages of 15 and 24, a youth unemployment rate of 20%. If that rate has increased, it would be very bad news for a government that pitches itself to aspirational, young India.

The census would also tell us how many Indians have access to healthcare, and how much they have been educated. It would tell us whether they have had to migrate for work. It would, in short, answer the Chinese spokesperson’s somewhat dismissive question about “quality.”

For now, it looks like India isn’t ready for the answer. India may today be the largest country in the world, and likely will be for all time. But we can’t know how India will shape its world — since we don’t know who Indians are.

Disclaimer: This is a Bloomberg Opinion piece, and these are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not reflect the views of www.business-standard.com or the Business Standard newspaper

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First Published: Apr 21 2023 | 6:55 AM IST

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