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Brief History of CENSUS and National Population Register

India's cabinet has approved funds for the next census. Though this is a decennial exercise, a simultaneous exercise to prepare the National Population Register (NPR) will also be undertaken in April 2020. The government was quick to differentiate the NPR from the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) that has led to massive protests. The idea of the NPR is to "better target benefits and services". But the critics are bound to focus on the target" and "Register" parts.

What has the government approved?
As protests spread all across the country against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), the government of India gave its go-ahead to undertake the country’s 16th decadal Census exercise to count the country’s population. The 2011 Census had pegged India’s population at 1.21 billion — a 17.6% rise from 2001.

A simultaneous exercise to prepare the National Population Register (NPR) will also be undertaken in April 2020. The Cabinet has allocated ₹13,000 crore ($1.8 billion) for updating the Census and the NPR. The NPR, started in 2010, was last updated in 2015, following a door-to-door exercise by officials under the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

NPR is distinct from the Census. The register’s objective, according to the Censusindia website, is to create “a comprehensive identity database in the country with full identification and other details by registering each and every usual resident in the country". The idea behind NPR is to better target benefits and services by preventing identity fraud. The census, on the other hand, collects data on population, economy activity, social and cultural aspects, migration and demography, down to the lowest administrative level.

The NPR will be a database generated through house-to-house enumeration during the “house-listing” phase of the census, which is held once in 10 years and will be done next in 2021. It defines a “usual resident” as a person who has resided in a place for six months or more, and intends to reside there for another six months or more.
“We are launching a massive program of national Census which happens every 10 years. Every house will be mapped and listed from April to September 2020 and in February 2021 the headcount will be done," said Prakash Javadekar, Union minister of information and broadcasting, adding that the exercise was being undertaken to ensure that “all beneficiaries of schemes such as Ayushman Bharat and Ujjwala are accounted for and receive the benefits."
The minister also reiterated that a cleaner and more streamlined Census would prepare the ground for compiling data for NPR, adding that the register had the potential to club all other forms of identification such as Aadhaar, permanent account number (PAN), driving license and electoral photo identity card under one platform.

Why is this move set to be controversial?
Even as the country was struggling to differentiate between the NRC and CAA, here comes NPR in the mix.

At his Ram Lila Grounds rally, kicking off his party’s campaign for the Delhi assembly elections due early next year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi put up a stout defence of the Citizenship Amendment Act and charged the Opposition with seeking to divide the country for its own vote bank politics. How can his government seek to strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship, he asked, when his government has been implementing welfare scheme after welfare scheme without any attempt to discriminate against any class of beneficiaries?
How can the Opposition mislead people about a National Register of Citizens when neither the Cabinet nor Parliament has discussed any proposal to create an NRC? The CAA merely seeks to grant citizenship to refugees of religious persecution in three neighbouring countries. How can anyone in their senses oppose such a move? The Opposition is motivated by hatred towards Modi and spreading lies, the Prime Minister counter-attacked, working the crowd to perfection.
Many Opposition leaders were quick to point out that Modi’s claims would have been a whole lot more credible if one, the Assam NRC had not happened and, two, home minister Amit Shah had not repeatedly affirmed his intention to implement a nationwide NRC, and three, the intent to give refuge to persecuted minorities had extended its benevolence to all neighboring countries and all denominations, instead of excluding Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China among countries and Muslims as a religious denomination.
The Supreme Court has shown no particular hurry to review the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. So, both sides – the supporters and the hates of the CAA – have been claiming their interpretation of the Act to be “the truth”The protest against the CAA has spread to almost every corner of the country, yet the reasons for the protest vary with the region. The protestors in the northeast believe the CAA will be used to ‘legalize’ the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – especially the Hindu refugees identified in the NRC exercise in Assam. Others are protesting because the CAA allegedly violates the secular identity of the country while still others fear that it will endanger their linguistic and cultural identity. Yet others believe that while the CAA itself is harmless, combined with the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise that has run into controversy in Assam, it will become a tool to exclude the Muslim population of the country.

The NRC identified illegal immigrants from Assam on the Supreme Court’s order. This has so far been a state-specific exercise to keep its ethnic uniqueness unaltered. But ever since its implementation, there has been a growing demand for its nationwide implementation. That the Union government has been hit hard by this allegation is evident from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly contradicted home minister Amit Shah’s assertion that a nationwide NRC will be prepared by 2024.
While the census is legally backed by the Census Act, 1948, the NPR is a mechanism outlined in a set of rules framed under the Citizenship Act, 1955. Section 14A was inserted in the Citizenship Act, 1955, in 2004, providing for the compulsory registration of every citizen of India and the issue of a “national identity card” to him or her. It also said the Central government may maintain a “National Register of Indian Citizens”.
The Registrar General India shall act as the “National Registration Authority” (and will function as the Registrar General of Citizen Registration). Incidentally, the Registrar General is also the country’s Census Commissioner. The NPR can be seen as the first step towards establishing the NRIC.
Out of the NPR, a set of all usual residents of India, the government proposes to create a database of “citizens of India”. Thus, the “National Register of Indian Citizens” (NRIC) is a sub-set of the NPR. The NRIC will be prepared at the local, sub-district, district and State levels after verifying the citizenship status of the residents.

Earlier this year, the Centre had decided to prepare an NPR by September 2020 to lay the foundation for rolling out a citizens’ register across the country, which could potentially lay the basis of a pan-India National Register of Citizens exercise.
A nationwide NRC by any other name, this is how the critics of the CAA and NRC will see the announcement.

When was the first Census conducted?
Even though the census is basically a demographic exercise in India, it has always been influenced by political developments and has, in turn, heavily impacted national and state politics. It has always been about fire and fury.

The first such effort in 1861 was postponed due to the dislocations caused by the First War of Independence (the great rebellion of 1857. In 1872, the British began the decennial Census of India, as part of the continuing work to survey India and its people.
The next census was carried out in 1881, and every ten years after that. The collecting of data for the census was sometimes looked on with fear and suspicion by local people. One such instance is described in a report from the Santal Parganas, an area in the Bengal Presidency, where local people objected to the recording of names and the numbering of houses. The Deputy Magistrate at Jamtara, W Rattray, was so nervous that he sent his wife away by the afternoon train to ensure her safety. His fears were not without foundation as that evening he awoke to find his bungalow on fire.
Later, the 1921 and 1931 censuses were affected by the non-cooperation movement and sporadic political unrest during the period that curtailed data collection to some extent. Similarly, the 1941 census operations were affected by World War II. In Independent India, too, political disturbances led to the exclusion of Assam from the 1981 census and Jammu and Kashmir from the 1991 census.

In turn, the censuses have also played an even greater role in influencing politics. For instance, census numbers played an important role in two great partitions; first, in Bengal partition, the 1872 census identified the large Muslim population in the state, and then that of India in 1947. Similarly, census data played a prominent role in the linguistic reorganisation of Indian states in 1956 and also in the more recent ones like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal.

Census data also influences the political representation; as the numbers of elected representatives in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures are apportioned on the basis of the population estimated in the 1971 census so that the states that have curtailed population growth are not disadvantaged.
Apart from politics, the census has also played a prominent role in identifying social and economic trends for 130 years. For instance, the first census in 1872 highlighted how low literacy and social attitudes limited the ability to recall age, as most people preferred to round up the number either to 0 or to 5. In fact, as much as 56% of the reported ages in the 1901 census ended in 0, 2 or 5! And it was the 1871-72 census that first laid bare the extensive prevalence of female infanticide and the highly skewed sex population ratio, especially in the north and west of India.

As to the fate of Deputy Magistrate Rattray in 1881, the British government of India told him that the numbering of houses could be dispensed with, and the registering of males by name relaxed, if it would help allay the apprehensions of the Santal people. The Santals finally had their way, but they had to burn Rattray’s house to make their interpretation of the Census clear.

Where will the Census data be useful?
The decennial census is the single largest source of a variety of statistical information on different characteristics of the people of India conducted on the basis of the Census Act enacted in 1948.
The government of India decided in May 1949 to initiate steps for developing systematic collection of statistics on the size of population and its growth, and established an organisation in the Ministry of Home Affairs under Registrar General and ex-Officio Census Commissioner, India. The exercise to count more than 1.35 billion people comes with a structured process.

Census 2021 will be conducted in two phases. In the first phase, the work of house-listing or housing census will be conducted from April to September 2020. In the second phase, the enumeration of population will be done from February 9 to February 28, 2021 with reference moment as 00:00 hours of March 1, 2021.
The census is the basis for reviewing the country's progress in the past decade, monitoring the ongoing schemes of the government and plan for the future. The census provides detailed and authentic information on demography, economic activity, literacy and education, housing and household amenities, urbanisation, fertility and mortality, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, language, religion, migration and disability.

The enumerators also collect data related to cultivators and agricultural labourers, their gender, occupational classification of workers in non-households industry, trade, business, profession or service by class of worker and gender. There will be detailed survey on gender and literacy rate, number of towns, slum households and their population. Information is also collected on sources of potable water, energy, irrigation, method of farming, whether a house is concrete, thatched or others.
With a history of more than 130 years, this reliable, time tested exercise has been bringing out a veritable wealth of statistics every 10 years, beginning from 1872 when the first census was conducted in India non-synchronously in different parts. The 16th decennial Census data would be available by the year 2024 – perhaps just in time for the General Elections that year.

Who will not be counted?
Census 2021 is unlikely to collect “caste wise” data as a similar exercise conducted in 2011 by another ministry threw up about 40 lakh caste names that were difficult to tabulate.

The 2011 caste data, collected as part of the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC), is yet to be released by the Centre. As per the National Commission for Backward Classes, there are 2,479 entries in the Central list of the Other Backward Classes (OBC).
“The caste data is difficult to enumerate as last time when it was collected, we got as many as 40 lakh names of castes,” said one official in an interview with The Hindu in August. “For example, a person belonging to the Yadav caste wrote Yadu, Yaduvanshi... in the form; there is no standardisation. People sometimes confuse caste with gotra,” added the official.

However, if the government needs to come up with informed social policies, it needs data on how the societies are constructed (or segregated) by collating the data on caste. These are some of the reasons why Census 2021 must definitely have caste-related data. India has numerous policies based on caste. The central and state governments implement quota for OBCs and economically weaker sections (upper castes not covered by the SC, ST and OBC quotas). But reservations to various social groups are now being provided without knowing their share in the population (Marathas and Jats at the state level or upper castes at the central level).

The Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission, also known as the Mandal Commission, had faced this problem when it did not have updated data on caste while formulating its report recommending reservation for the OBCs in 1980. It had to depend on the 1931 census data. It recommended that in the next decadal census, caste data must be collected.
At this moment, India’s reservation policies are based on data that are 90 years old. This in itself is a form of historical injustice.

How will technology help the enumerators?

The Census exercise would involve 31 lakh (3.1 million) trained enumerators, with data collected digitally using Android based mobile phones.

Over 90 per cent of enumerators engaged in the first test phase for Census 2021 opted to use a smartphone app, which will be deployed for the first time in the 16th decennial exercise, according to data from the Office of the Registrar General of India.
A senior official told The Indian Express in September that 6,482 out of 7,102 enumerators registered for data collection through their own mobile devices for the pre-test period from April 12 to September 30 — they will be given an incentive of Rs 5,000 each. At the end of the house-listing test phase, mobile phones had synced the figures for 7.7 lakh houses with 26 lakh people to an official web portal, according to official data.

While enumerators can enter data offline, taking into account regions with poor connectivity, they must be connected to the Internet to sync with the portal. The app is currently only in English but will expand to regional languages for the Census. Over the last year, the government has been discussing the use of mobile technology to decrease the time it takes to release the data, with sources in the Home Ministry saying that the new system could reduce the gap to 2-3 years.
The Census will have code numbers linked to set responses for descriptive questions, to minimise varied responses that need to be categorised post-data collection. Officials say the 2011 Census publication was significantly delayed by a large number of varied responses to open-ended questions. The migration data for the 2011 Census was released at the end of July.

Up until 1965, a hand-held “card punch” was used for data collection. In 1991, the data was digitised on a personal computer and stored locally. Up until that point, the Census collected data of the entire country’s population, but only digitised a selected 5-40 per cent of the data. The 2001 Census was a huge technological leap with an “intelligent character recognition system” that detected handwriting and allowed for all collected data to be digitised. This more than halved the public release time of 10 years.

This time the attempt will be to release the data by 2024.


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