Special Article

EPW Commentary

August 7, 2004

Census Goldmine

Dissemination of 2001 Data

While technology allows dissemination of census information via the internet, for many others, texts of the census tables remain unavailable. Part of the blame lies with the office of the registrar general which has done little to modernise its work or publicise its efforts.

Ashish Bose




 The census of India is a veritable goldmine of data but one can get easily lost and not find even gold dust! As a result, the massive census data remain mostly unanalysed. The provisional figures for the total population in India and the states, were released with lightning speed on March 26, 2001. Considering that the revisional round of the census enumeration was over only on March 5 it was a remarkable achievement indeed. But alas, not even the key tables have been brought out so far and it is unlikely that the main tables will be published before the end of this year. From jet speed we have descended to auto-rickshaw speed! This is not a reflection on the able demographer-administrator (J K Banthia) who conducted the 2001 census, but a sad commentary on the obsolescence of the office of registrar general under the ministry of home affairs (in spite of modern data processing introduced in the 2001 census which enabled 100 per cent transfer of data from millions of individual slips and household schedules to the computer). Added to this is the unexplained indifference of the Planning Commission, which made no efforts to give the much needed support to the census organisation.

In terms of headcount, the Chinese census is the world’s largest census operation, but in terms of the comprehensiveness of the questionnaire (including the questionnaire for the house listing operation which is conducted prior to the census enumeration), the census of India, 2001 was the largest census operation in the history of census taking. It must also be noted the census of India dates back to 1881 (in 1872 a census was conducted but it was not a synchronous census). India has a proud history of uninterrupted decennial censuses which is not true of the Chinese census and for that matter, even of the UK census. After independence, the first census was conducted in 1951 and every 10 years since then we have conducted a census. This is not the case in Bangladesh and Pakistan where because of political turmoil, the decennial census series in the subcontinent got disrupted.

To go back to history, it was in 1961 that a distinguished scholar-administrator (Asok Mitra) who was one of the last ICS officers in independent India, put the Indian census on the world map by introducing new concepts and classifications, more detailed tabulations, special tables for scheduled caste and scheduled tribes and also for large cities, collecting a wide range of ancillary data, setting up a map division to undertake extensive mapping, and a social studies division to undertake anthropological studies and analyse ‘social and cultural’ tables. He also involved a large number of Indian scholars from universities and research institutions in the analysis of census data by commissioning special census monographs published by the office of registrar general. He also invited foreign scholars to undertake studies based on 1961 census data. He was responsible for the participation of a fairly large number of Indian scholars at the United Nations-sponsored World Population Conference in Belgrade (1965) and above all, he threw open the doors of census office to all scholars. His was an outstanding performance. Mitra took pride in the fact that he operated from the dilapidated (later renovated) second world war army barracks at 2A Mansingh Road, New Delhi. As he once told me: “I do not want ‘Parkinson’s Law’ to operate in my office. I have not asked the home ministry for funds for a new building. I always ask for funds to publish census tables, reports and maps”. Money is always a constraint and once the decennial census is over, the home ministry is reluctant to sanction more funds. Mitra did manage to get funds by directly appealing to the home minister. He once told me the secret. He would always get an appointment with the home minister and take with him the fattest census volumes (running into hundreds of pages) and before parting, gently mention an amount which was needed to publish more volumes. The home minister would readily agree to sanction more funds!

Every successive census commissioner (1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001) followed Mitra’s footsteps but they did not succeed in getting adequate funds from the home ministry. The times had changed. There are far too many joint secretaries (unlike in Mitra’s days) and IAS officers (no matter how good they are) do not have the halo of an ICS Officer, quite ironically. The registrar general’s rank was not upgraded to that of an additional secretary in spite of the growing importance of census and the enormous work involved in tabulating data for a billion persons. The director general of the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) has the rank of an additional secretary. In my view (which I have expressed in several forums in the last few decades) the office of registrar general and census commissioner must be upgraded, strengthened and modernised and the census commissioner must have the rank of a secretary. Only then things will move. The present system of a joint secretary reporting to an additional secretary in the home ministry will not deliver the goods. The ritual of the home minister releasing census volumes in impressive ceremonies in high security Vigyan Bhavan is like putting a cherry on the ice cream except that the ice cream is not there!

It goes to the credit of the 2001 census commissioner (J K Banthia) that in spite of the constraints, he conducted successfully census enumeration exercise all over India. It may be recalled that in 1991, the census enumeration did not take place in Jammu and Kashmir because of the disturbed conditions. In 2001 in spite of frequent threats from militants, the census enumeration did take place in J and K. There are obvious advantages in having a technical demographer as well as an administrator rolled into one as is the case with Banthia. He has made an outstanding contribution to census data dissemination by putting the data on the website in a user-friendly manner. Even more impressive is the GIS website which puts the thematic maps for every state and district in India, even going down to the subdistrict (tehsil) level. The doors of the census office are open through the internet. Further, the most important tables are put on CDs which are made available at a modest price (Rs 350 per CD) at the office of registrar general. Data users can also ask for special tabulations (again, the charges are comparatively modest). In short, the RGI has taken full note of modern technology. All this has brought bouquets to the registrar general. But he has received brickbats too. Let me list a few failures:

The data users are still waiting for the full set of census tables. At least for key tables on age structure, classification of workers by industrial categories, religious composition of the population, migration, etc. In the past, key tables were presented quickly on the basis of a 5 per cent sample. In 2001, as mentioned earlier, the entire data (on a 100 per cent basis) was transferred to the computers for tabulation, and this has, instead of speeding up tabulation has resulted in considerable delay. To make matters worse, the ninefold classification of workers adopted in 1961 census onwards has been replaced by a seventeen-fold classification as per the National Industrial Classification (NIC), 1998. To make the 2001 census data comparable with 1991 census industrial categories, an enormous amount of work is involved (posting of data and adjusting data). As of now, one cannot expect to get the full set of 2001 census tables earlier than 2005. By the time the data users access these tables and analyse the data, it will be 2007, time to prepare for the 2011 census! It is no use directing the brickbats to the census commissioner, who is a victim of technology snags and financial constraints. And very soon his term in Delhi will be over and he will go back to his own state. This is a sad state of affairs. It is high time that our politicians, policy-makers and planners understand the importance of the census for good governance.

For those who are unfamiliar with census history, let me state briefly that most momentous decisions shaping the history of modern India were taken on the basis of census data. The partition of India in 1947 was done on the basis of census data on religion. The reorganisation of states in 1956 was done on the basis of census data on mother tongue. The general elections ever since 1952 are conducted on the basis of delimitation of constituencies based on census data. The reservation of seats in parliament and assemblies is done on the basis of census data on scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The reservation of jobs for SCs and STs and for muslims (in Andhra Pradesh as per a recent decision of the state government) is done on the basis of census data. The new states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal in 2000 were formed on the basis of census data. It may be recalled that the population policy of 1976 froze all seats in parliament and state legislature assemblies as per the census of 1971, a freeze which remained valid right till 2000 when the new population policy (2000) was formulated which extended this freeze (as of 1971 census) by another 25 years, i e, 2026. This was later backed by a constitutional amendment. The close connection between democracy and demography will be evident from the population policy. If the freeze was done away with, the demographically progressive states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, would have lost seats in parliament because of a lower growth rate of population, and the demographically backward states (I call them BIMARU) would have gained more seats in parliament because of their failure to control population growth rate effectively! On a lower scale, it may be mentioned that the calculation of dearness allowance (DA) to government employees depends on the size-class of cities and this is determined by the census. I think no more justification is required to impress on the government of India the importance of census in almost all walks of life. Sitting in Delhi the PM can have access to census data all over the country, even at the village level on his computer, if the relevant census data are put on website. It should be obvious that the timeliness of data dissemination is as important as the range of data collected. If we have to overcome the technology snags, we need more human and financial resources and considerable strengthening of the census commission. The days of one-man show of Asok Mitra are gone. There is no need for the census commissioner to be tied to the apron-strings of the secretary or additional secretary of the ministry of home affairs. The census commission should be put on par with the election commission. The election commission has to deal with only the 18 plus population while the census commission has to deal with every man, woman and child in India regardless of age. The help of IT professionals and the private sector must be sought in a big way by the census commission to generate the tables speedily (this is not a reflection on the present deputy registrar general or his staff in charge of tabulation, who are doing a marathon job very competently). In short, the home ministry should not wait till say, 2009, when a new census commissioner has to be appointed for conducting the 2011 census, to think in terms of upgrading the office of registrar general and census commissioner. He should act now.

Before closing, I must refer to an impressive national seminar on ‘Census Data Dissemination’, organised by the census commissioner on July 10 in harmony with the World Population Day on July 11. Shivraj Patil, union home minister, inaugurated the seminar and there were as many as 265 participants from concerned government departments, academic scholars, representatives of NGOs, donor agencies and UN agencies and almost the entire technical staff of the office of registrar general. He released two valuable census publications: India Administrative Atlas, 1872-2001: A Historical Perspective (price Rs 1,200) and another volume on languages of India based on 1991 data.

As already stated, a new feature of Census of India, 2001 is the use of modern technology to disseminate census data. In 1998, a website was created on the internet to provide census data and metadata. The site was also used to generate awareness about 2001 census and the census questionnaire. For thematic maps, a new GIS website was created (http://www.censusindiamaps.net), in addition to the census of India website (http://www.censusindia.net). The GIS website allows the user to prepare maps up to taluk or any sub-district level and the software available on the website is user friendly. The census organisation also claims that ‘no other census website in the world provides such a tool’.

At this seminar, the final population totals were at last released (Census of India 2001: Final Population Totals, Series 1 by Jayant Kumar Banthia, registrar general and census commissioner, July 2004). The other census volume, which was released, was on cities (Census of India 2001: Final Population Totals, Urban Agglomerations, Series 1, July 2004).

These data are also available on CDs. I was disappointed by the urban data presented. The volume gives only the total population of 5,141 individual cities and towns and also the population of SCs and STs. This can hardly help students of urbanisation. Digging in the census goldmine is indeed a hard exercise. One must have enormous patience and the will to work with obsolete data!

While it is marvellous for persons with their own personal computers or those with easy access to computers to download census data from the website, there are millions of people as well as students and teachers in small colleges and universities all over India who wait eagerly for hard copies of 2001 census tables. Buying CDs is also not easy for people staying outside Delhi. While lecturing at universities and taking part at conferences all over India, I find almost a total ignorance on the part of students and teachers about census data. It is flattering for me to be told that they learn about the census through my books and Economic and Political Weekly articles, but the information gap is formidable. The Census Organisation does not have its own press. Every time a publication is ready, they have to get sanction to publish the report speedily through private publishers. And this has been so since the 1961 census. Nothing changes quickly in the government. I am reminded of what a state director of census operations once told me: “That we have a long history of census taking running over one hundred years, is both an asset and a liability. The census organisation is like a horse with blinkers on its eyes”.

Copyright: EPW