WE celebrate this 63rd year of Independence at a time when India is engaged in a great national ritual of modern India, the decennial counting of the people of India and the detailed recording of their social, economic and vital statistics.
The census of India is one of the great and glorious institutions of modern India; one of the many British endowed institutions that form the bedrock of modern Indian polity. The census has a hoary history; the first census of India was conducted in 1872. That particular census was somewhat incomplete in its coverage and the data for different regions of India was collected at different times. Since 1881, the population of the whole territory of India has been counted together at the same time in the first year of every decade.
The census underway now is the fifteenth in an unbroken series. The data that has been collected over these 140 years offers a graphic picture of the changes that the land and people of India have undergone in this modern phase of their history; there is almost no other source which tells the story of the triumphs and tribulations of modern India more graphically and accurately. In the process, the census of India has acquired an enviable reputation for efficiency, rigour and accuracy. The officers associated with the census of India are routinely drafted to help in designing and executing modern censuses for relatively less developed countries.
It is indeed true that the census operations, especially during the British period, have led to much competition between different groups, and perhaps also in the consolidation of competitive group identities. Such consolidation would have in any case taken place in a polity based upon competitive elections. Modern electoral polity by its very nature leads to consolidation of larger group identities, and corrosion of the essential solidarity and harmony within and between smaller organic groupings that naturally exist in a functioning society.
Counting of numbers of different groups during the census operations may have sometimes added to the process of disintegration of organic solidarities and consolidation of larger competing groupings. But, the census is not the cause of such disruptions; these have been caused mainly by the new polity introduced by the British with its competitive electoral arrangements, administrative systems and economic structures.
Census by counting the numbers of different groups, however, provides us with a picture of how this process of change has proceeded. And thus offers a comprehension of the changing numbers and profile of different groups within the society. We may put this to use to moderate and control the disruptive processes operating in our society, just as many groups are using the census information to accelerate and deepen the disruptions and disharmonies.
Thus without the painstaking collection of data that the census has been undertaking for one and half centuries, we would have no authentic information on how the numbers of different religious groups have been changing in different parts of India over the decades. It is true that we have not been able to do much to arrest the process of changing religious profile of India even when comprehensive data on this phenomenon is available. But in the absence of the data, we would not even know of the extent and severity of the situation.
The data that the census collects is so crucial that it would be nearly a disaster if for some reason the census of 2011 fails to make available data for the religious composition of different parts of India. The pace of change in the religious composition indicated in the last 3 censuses has been such that by 2021 it would perhaps be too late to make any efforts to slow down or reverse the process. This is only one example of the importance of the data that the census collects.
In view of this it is unfortunate that the census of 2011 has got mired in several controversies. Below we list two of the most significant of such controversies.
Census and NPR
For some years now, the Government of India has been working on a proposal to prepare National Register of India Citizens. A tentative legal structure and a separate authority has also been established for this purpose, though the details of the process and the role of different authorities in creating the citizenship register have not been yet fully worked out.
In particular, the Government has not been able to settle the issue of how the citizenship of persons of doubtful status is to be determined. In view of this difficulty, the authorities have decided to change the nomenclature of the proposed register from National Register of Indian Citizens to National Population Register (NPR). The NPR shall contain the details of all usual residents of India and all of them shall be issued a unique number and a national identity card.
For some inscrutable reason the authorities have decided to tag the task of preparing the National Population Register with the census of 2011.
The census is carried out in two phases. The first phase is now in progress all over the country and is to be completed in another month. In this phase, the census makes a list of census houses and the households; detailed enumeration of the residents of these households is undertaken in the second phase, which is called the Population Enumeration, and is carried out in February-March of the census year. In the course of the first phase, while making layout maps of different census blocks and lists of houses and households, the census also collects information about the kind and condition of the houses and about the availability of various facilities like drinking water, sanitation and sewerage, energy for light and cooking, personal transport like automobile or cycle, communication facilities like telephone and radio, etc. During the current census, information is also being canvassed for the availability of mobile telephones and internet in the census houses. No information regarding individuals in a household is collected in this phase of the census.
However, the data for NPR, which requires collection of individual information, is being collected in this phase of the census. The details that are being canvassed for preparing the NPR include the following:
1. Name of person; 2. Relationship to head; 3. Father’s name; 4. Mother’s name; 5. Spouse’s name; 6. Sex; 7. Date of birth; 8. Marital status; 9. Place of birth; 10. Nationality as declared; 11. Present address of usual residence; 12. Duration of stay at present address; 13. Permanent residential address; 14. Occupation/Activity; 15. Educational qualification
All this information is to be obtained from the head of the household and is to be entered in the NPR form as declared by the respondent. The enumerators are specifically instructed not to enter into any arguments with the respondent. But, questions concerning place of birth, address of usual residence, duration of stay at the present address, permanent residential address, and nationality are crucial in settling the citizenship status of a person. Answers to such questions cannot be accepted on the basis of what the respondent declares; these require documentary proof.
This is the crux of the controversy regarding the NPR. The NPR questionnaire seems designed to invite all non-citizens residing in India to claim citizenship. Why shall a person of doubtful status ever declare his or her nationality to be other than Indian or his birth-place to be anywhere else except in India?
This way of legitimising the status of all residents in India is of doubtful legal validity. It certainly seems to run contrary to the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, under which the exercise is being undertaken.
By creating the NPR in this fashion the government is violating the sanctity of Indian citizenship. An India that aspires to be counted amongst the great powers of the world in the future cannot possibly afford to be indifferent about who may and who may not legitimately claim Indian citizenship.
And by associating this controversial exercise with the census process, the sanctity of the census is also being violated. The census is carried out on the basis of faith between the enumerator and the respondent. Any issues that need more than faith, that require documentary evidence, cannot be part of the census process.
Senior demographers and administrators associated with the census have repeatedly warned the government against tagging the NPR with the census. In the Data-Users Conference held in 2008 in preparation of the census 2011, former Registrar General of India, Shri Jayant Banthia, is known to have warned that though NPR is a good idea, which needs to be pursued, but “timing of the NPR with census could ruin both operations”. We seem intent on ruining both.
Another controversy that has been raised around census 2011 is regarding the question of carrying out a census of castes.
In the censuses carried out before Independence, the caste of the respondent used to be recorded. The coverage and tabulation of caste composition of the population varied from census to census and from region to region, usually depending on the attitude of the officer-in-charge of census operations in a particular region. Some of the officers found caste tabulation significant and attempted very detailed tabulation, others thought that it was not a very meaningful exercise and therefore did minimal tabulation. For the 1941 census, limited tabulation was done because of the exigencies of the war, and therefore caste tables were not prepared though the data on caste was collected.
(To be concluded)