In two months, India is projected to become the world’s most populous country with over 1.4 billion people. However, the country won’t know how many people it has for at least a year, and possibly longer, due to the pandemic delaying its once-in-a-decade census. Experts say this affects social and economic planning and policy making in the huge Asian economy, as the data captured by the census, such as employment, housing, literacy levels, migration patterns, and infant mortality, is indispensible. Without the latest census data, estimations are based on information that is one decade old and is likely to provide estimates that are far from reality.
A senior official at the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation said census data from 2011, when the count was last conducted, is being used for projections and estimates required to assess government spending. The home ministry official said the software that will be used to gather census data on a mobile phone app has to be synchronized with existing identity databases, including the national identity card, called Aadhaar, which is taking time.
The main opposition Congress party and critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have accused the government of delaying the census to hide data on politically sensitive issues, such as unemployment, ahead of national elections due in 2024. The United Nations has projected India’s population could touch 1,425,775,850 on April 14, overtaking China on that day.
India’s census is conducted by about 330,000 government school teachers who first go door-to-door listing all houses across the country and then return to them with a second list of questions. They ask more than two dozen questions each time in 16 languages in the two phases that will be spread over 11 months, according to the plan made for 2021. The numbers will be tabulated and final data made public months later. The entire exercise was estimated to cost 87.5 billion rupees ($1.05 billion) in 2019.
However, teachers have returned to school after the pandemic disruption and have to conduct nine state elections in 2023 and national elections in 2024 besides the census and this would again disrupt teaching. Payments have also become an issue. Arvind Mishra, a senior official at the All-India Primary Teachers Federation which counts 2.3 million members, said teachers are bound by law to help conduct elections and the census but government must increase the fees they receive.
A former top official of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency that runs the highly successful national identity program Aadhaar, sought to downplay the significance of the decennial census data saying the identity program is a “de facto, real-time” census. According to UIDAI, 1.30 billion people were enrolled under Aadhaar on December 31, 2022, against a projected population then of 1.37 billion. The gap would mostly be children who are not enrolled and deaths that are not updated, the former UIDAI official said.
Pronab Sen, a former chief statistician of India, said the sample registration system (SRS) which estimates birth and death rates shows the population growth rate with reasonable accuracy. Unlike Aadhaar, the SRS survey counts a representative sample of births and deaths and uses it to project the count for a larger region.