In a time of distrust, Census 2021 surveyors stare at an uphill task

Topics census | NSO | Citizenship Bill

Census officials at a village in 2010. The big worry ahead is how the fear of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens will affect the mammoth exercise required for Census 2021
We have been living in this house for 90 years. We are citizens of this country. You know the situation right now. Who will answer your questionnaire?” a resident of Malakpet in Hyderabad is seen telling two women surveyors in a video that went viral on social media on February 26. 

The surveyors tell him they are collecting data only on tourism and related matters for the National Statistical Office (NSO), a central government body that has been conducting surveys since the 1950s. But the man stands his ground: “Whenever you come later, you can call me up. You are like my sisters. But only when this chaos gets over. I request you to not collect any data in this area until then.”

There is fear, suspicion and anxiety among people in different parts of the country since the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, came into force on December 11, 2019. The law, which seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim victims of religious persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, has triggered worries that if the government also brings in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the fate of India’s own Muslims might become uncertain. Such is the fear that any exercise to collect any kind of data is meeting with stiff resistance, especially in areas dominated by minority communities.

The NSO began a socio-economic survey in January for the calendar year of 2020. The 78th round of the survey on “domestic tourism expenditure” and “multiple indicators” aimed to map for the first time the various indicators that need to be worked on to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. This required collecting information that ranged from housing facilities to access to schools and hospitals, as well as the migration patterns of citizens.

Ever since the survey began, the NSO headquarters in New Delhi has been receiving frantic calls and complaints from regional offices across the country. The complaints range from an enumerator being locked up in a house to another being surrounded or even assaulted by people who feared that the data being collected would be used for determining their citizenship.

An expert committee, led by National Statistical Commission (NSC) member G C Manna, had thought its job was done when it designed the survey and approved it for fieldwork. But the committee had to meet for an urgent brainstorming session on February 19 to decide the fate of the survey. It was presented with evidence of attacks on surveyors from Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Bihar and Karnataka. In worst affected West Bengal, fieldwork for all ongoing household surveys had to be halted to ensure the safety of data collectors.

“The lives of surveyors are more important than the survey. We have received the most complaints from the northern region of Bihar, which shares a border with Nepal,” says an NSO official from Bihar.

The committee recommended deferring the survey till the situation normalises. Until then, the government has been advised to spread awareness through advertisements to assure people that the data from these surveys will be used for policymaking and not to determine or take away citizenship.

The resistance, meanwhile, is not restricted to suburban or rural areas. In Delhi, when enumerators approached a residential complex in Mayur Vihar last month, they were met with suspicion. The data to be collected was related to the Economic Census, a routine exercise that has been going on for years. Before responding to the field officers, residents called up government officials and journalists to verify the authenticity of the exercise.

“As a precaution, we have started informing the police station in the area concerned about the survey before beginning the fieldwork,” says Supriya Roy, deputy director general at NSO’s Mumbai office. “This ensures that the police are aware of the exercise in case they receive a complaint from locals.”

She adds that surveyors too have been instructed not to pressure people to participate in the surveys, and to return if they sense resistance.

That the 78th round of the NSO survey also has some questions on migration is not helping. These are some of the questions that are making people wary: Did the household member ever stay continuously in the same town or village for more than six months? What was the last place and country of residence? What was the main reason for which the household member left the previous place? Which documents from the previous place of residence does the person have?

“The NSO surveys are crucial for policymaking. They are not used for any other purpose,” Roy says. “In fact, the personal data of the citizens are masked while preparing the findings of the survey reports.”

Not all surveys are conducted by NSO staff. Some are outsourced. For instance, the annual Periodic Labour Force Survey, which first began in July 2017, has mostly contractual staff collecting data. “They feel more insecure as it’s a temporary job and they are comparatively inexperienced,” says an NSO official.

In Thiruvananthapuram, the NSO held a press conference on February 24 to clear the air on the ongoing surveys. “We are doing our best to spread the message that these surveys have no link with other exercises of the government,” says Sunitha Bhaskar, NSO deputy director general in Thiruvananthapuram. “We are facing problems in conducting all the surveys. In some pockets, we have even decided to defer data collection as surveyors were being shown the door.”

The big worry ahead is how the fear of CAA and NRC will affect the mammoth exercise required for Census 2021.

Data collection for the Census, which is conducted every 10 years under the home ministry, is scheduled to begin in April. In the first phase, the enumerators will go to different households and number them. In the second phase, starting February 2021, a headcount will be taken.

Training for the Census has started in all the states, and the same field officers will simultaneously also update the National Population Register (NPR). This is being done to save costs.

“It will become difficult for citizens to distinguish between the NPR and Census. As a result, the quality of information might get affected with the high likelihood of resistance from households,” says former NSC Chairman P C Mohanan. Mohanan had quit the NSC in January 2019 after the government delayed the release of the Periodic Labour Force Survey, which showed the unemployment rate touching a 45-year-high of 6.1 per cent in 2017-18.

The Census Act of 1948 states that the information collected through this exercise can be denied to even a court of law; that’s how secret it is, says Mohanan. “If the government decides to withdraw the NPR and conduct the Census separately, it may instil some confidence in the people and protect the integrity of the exercise,” he adds.

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