The world's second largest national headcount operation, the Census of India, is significant for several reasons. The largest peace-time administrative activity of the Indian state is also the third since economic liberalisation was initiated. Three decades is enough time for a nation to assess the economic impact and implications of a change in macroeconomic policies, and hence Census 2011 should provide statistical insights into what the move away from state-led development has meant for the people. In a rapidly growing India pulled back by glaring inequalities, data gathered by the censuses — particularly the village and town registers that give primary data on important indicators such as access to education, healthcare, communication, and financial services — will be invaluable for re-orienting public policy. This will also help align policies with the global approach to poverty reduction. In a specific instance, 262 districts and cities have been identified as “Gender Critical” — based on the 2001 Census data related to sex ratio, female literacy rate, and female work participation — and special training has been given to enumerators to collect accurate information on gender issues.

The 2011 Census has also done well to add questions that are in tune with a rapidly evolving economy. The inclusion of questions on whether a household possesses computers, laptops, and mobile phones will help determine India's standing in a fast-digitising global economy and provide a picture of the digital divide. The information gathered on modes of transport from commuters and the distance travelled to work — to be collected in the current phase of Population Enumeration — has the potential to be a valuable building block for an efficient public transport network. Economic activity has always engaged the attention of census-takers. Its contemporary salience is evident from the distinction being made in the Census between ‘marginal workers' who have worked for zero-to-three months and those who have worked for three-to-six months; this information will help policymakers assess the impact of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The larger economic purpose of Census 2011, however, should be to provide a reality check on where India stands on key indicators of development and also in relation to the government's professed committment to the creation of an inclusive society.

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