Why India's census is in trouble

From April 1, the Union government will begin an exercise that is likely to traumatise the population and exhaust the bureaucracy and the state. Enumerators for the National Population Register (NPR) will fan out across India for six months between April and September to engage with 250 million households to do the census headcount and gather some additional data. 

Opponents of the NPR say that the additional questions on parents make the NPR a lethal weapon that will authorise low level administrative officers to mark individuals as doubtful citizens. This will strip them of voting rights, and begin a process that goes through a National Register of Citizens list, a Foreigner Tribunal and ends in a detention centre. The only thing that the prime minister has said about this concern is that the NRC has not been discussed yet, the home minister’s many unambiguous public pronouncements on it notwithstanding.

Let us assume that the government is indeed undecided about implementing a nationwide NRC. And let us assume that the changes to the NPR form have been made in good faith and that these forms, as the home minister has claimed, according to news reports, cannot at this stage be changed. And let us also assume that it is absolutely necessary to have yet another list of people in India (apart from the voters list, Aadhaar and the census). 

Even if we assume all this, and give the government the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult to see how proceeding with the NPR exercise makes sense. For one, some states have said that they will not implement it. Kerala has informed the Centre it will not implement the NPR fearing law and order problems. It has also challenged the Citizenship Amendment Act in the Supreme Court. Madhya Pradesh said this week it would not implement it, and in Maharashtra, some allies such as Sharad Pawar’s the Nationalist Congress Party are opposed to implementing it.

Other states like West Bengal have encouraged citizens to resist the enumerator and not show them any documents. Yet other states have said they will implement the NPR only partially (Odisha and Bihar), leaving out questions. Union ministers, such as Ram Vilas Paswan, have said that the NPR is problematic. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has said that he will not allow citizens to be jailed and instead go to jail himself first. At the federal level, then, it is clear that the incoming data will be incomplete and fragmented.

Illustration: Binay Sinha
The polarisation produced by the citizenship laws has resulted in some extreme actions by the state and these actions being publicised. In Hyderabad this week, the officials overseeing Aadhaar exceeded their brief and summoned over 100 people to their office on February 20 to prove their citizenship. Presumably, all of these were Muslim individuals. After this was reported, the Unique Identification Authority of India clarified and backtracked a little, saying that the individuals had been asked to come to them only in May. But the damage was done. Elsewhere, a court in Assam waved away 15 different documents, including voter ID cards and land revenue records from the 1960s, to dismiss a Muslim woman’s claim to Indian citizenship. Again, this was heavily publicised. 
In Bidar, children were interrogated over a school play on the citizenship laws, parents charged with sedition and women jailed, producing global outrage.

As a result of all this and more, in large parts of India there is heavy popular mobilisation against the NPR and the CAA. Tamil Nadu alone saw mass protests in Chennai, Tirunelveli, Vellore, Coimbatore, Thoothukudi, Tiruchi, Madurai, Salem and Krishnagiri on February 18. These were protests that in many cities required the deployment of the entire police force to manage. This is unsustainable in a country the size of India. 

The enumerators who will go door-to-door from April 1 will be low level employees, teachers and such, who will have little incentive to pursue the data collection in the face of resistance and hostility. The National Sample Survey (NSS) data is being affected by the anxieties over citizenship. In January, officials in Guntur were attacked while on a routine data collection exercise. The deputy director general of the NSS in West Bengal said data on education, sanitation and employment was difficult to gather because of “mistrust and acrimony.”

The former chief statistician of India Pronab Sen said that this was a new sort of problem. In an interview with The Indian Express he said that “attacks on field investigators of the NSS is not new. It has happened before, essentially when they asked questions on either household incomes or household assets… so, this has happened earlier, but not too often, because over time people got fairly comfortable knowing that NSS surveys happen.” He added that this time it was different. 
“First, you are going to have the population register starting with the (Census) house-listing operations. The house-listing operation is a key step in our critical analysis because that’s the basis on which the entire country is divided into enumeration blocks and then, the Census enumerators are given specific enumerator blocks. So, the enumeration blocks are at the heart of the Census operation. If you have problems in getting that done and if you get resistance to that, the Census is in deep trouble.” 

He said that we “may well have a situation where you are unable to do the Census properly and if the Census is not done properly, then for the next 10 years, no household survey would be reliable because all household surveys rely on the Census as the frame. If this (Census) runs into problems, and there’s a danger that it might, then for the next 11 years, you are in trouble”. 

What is at stake is credible data for a decade. The state will exhaust itself trying to implement something for which there is no demand from any section, which has resistance from not just parts of the polity, including opposition states, but also mass mobilisation of the sort we have not seen in a long time.

We have not even considered the fact that powerful voices around the world, including the United Nations Secretary General, elements within the European Union and the United States Congress, are concerned and vocal about what is happening in India.

It doesn’t make sense for the government to push through with the NPR exercise in these circumstances and the sooner it realises this and makes it public, the better. 

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