For the first time, income, race, religion, languages, environmental surroundings and time taken to get to work will be recorded.

Their ancestors hid high up in the sparse savannah hills of Cavalcante in the central Brazilian state of Goias for decades. They didn't want the state to find them. But now, the people from Engenho II village want to be counted in Brazil's census. Engenho II is a quilombo, a village formed by people who fled slavery in three centuries ago, and lived isolated from the mainstream until recently. This village is part of the Kalunga people, one of the largest remaining quilombo communities in Brazil, with around 6,000 people in 62 communities spread over an area of 2,53,200 acres. There are over 5,000 quilombos across Brazil.

“A few years ago, we had no electricity. What we produced on our farms, we had to carry on our backs and donkeys on the dirt road to the nearest town (23 km away). We still take our goods on our backs sometimes. The bus comes only twice a week,” says Sirilo Dos Santos Rosa, the village leader. “During the last census, we didn't have electricity, or any other facilities. But now, we have electricity, a health centre, a community centre and brick houses, after President Lula came to visit us. That's the importance of the census — it brings us an identity, and makes the government recognise our existence.”

Started in August

This August, Brazil embarked on one of the world's first fully digital census. It is an organised effort that involves 2,25,000 census workers spreading out over the vast terrain of the world's fifth largest country (8.5 million sq km) — from the crammed favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro to the scattered indigenous communities in the jungles of the Amazon. In remote quilombos like Engenho, the census taker, equipped with her hand-held touch screen, GPS-enabled device, borrowed her uncle's donkey to travel for her surveys. A resourceful blend of the old and the new.

Brazil plans to accomplish the monster task of surveying 58 million households in three months. And, it is already ahead of schedule. The data is transmitted from local data collection centres to the office of the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE) (Institute of Geography and Statistics) in Rio de Janeiro. Back ups are taken at every stage to make sure no data is lost. The GPS functionality in the PDAs merges maps with census data and details about the local environment, including street lighting, schools and clinics. This gives the government and planning authorities an integrated picture of facilities available to the community. And, the results are quick. The first estimate will be out as soon as the census is over in November, and the complete results will be available by 2011.

While India is just starting to issue Unique Identification cards to its citizens, Brazilians have had identity cards for decades. This year, the Federal government has ordered that state registries will be merged into a unified national registry. A new card with a microchip will be given to all citizens with their general identification number, the National Taxpayer Registration (CPF) and the voters' registration number. The microchip will store basic data like name, gender, name of the parents, place of birth, issue date, a photo, the digital signature and the fingerprint of the person, besides the digital identification number.

Latin America shows interest

Several other Latin American countries are keen to adopt Brazil's tech-savvy census.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is working with IBGE to harmonise demographic information with other Latin American and African countries, in a project called Common Sense/Census. It will provide a common base for comparison, decision-making and information exchange between countries. In an international meeting next year, Brazil will share its technology with other Latin American countries. Not surprising, considering the International Institute of Finances (IIF) ranked Brazil first among emerging market countries for statistical transparency and investor relations. In fact, Brazil's statistical proficiency when it comes to the census, surpasses even supposed ‘developed' countries like the U.S., where paper forms are mailed to citizens, and Canada, which is going a step backwards by proposing to scrap its long-form census survey, and only conduct the shorter version.

On the other hand, Brazil is trying to make its statistics database even richer, by adding new elements to its census. For the first time, income, race, religion, languages, environmental surroundings and time taken to get to work (for transport policy) will also be recorded. The census will also include questions about Brazilian migrants and new family structures (same sex partnerships/families and single parents).

A demographic transition

“Brazil is going through a demographic transition. Fertility rates have fallen, and the number of couples without children is growing,” says Jorge Abrahao de Castro, Director of Social Studies and Policies at the Instituto de Pesquisa Economica Aplicada (IPEA) (Institute for Research in Applied Economics). “This census will give us valuable information about how policies should change to deal with an aging population and changing family structures. Right now, there are very few social welfare programmes for senior citizens. They are still taken care of by the family.”

The census will help policy makers know if Brazil is on target to achieving its Millennium Development Goals for social and economic development. “We need the census to answer this question because our previous assessments have been based on National Household Sample Surveys, and the census will give us more precise data,” says de Castro. Knowing how Brazil's social security programmes like the popular Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) programme has impacted social development will help policy makers monitor its effectiveness. Bolsa Familia provides cash transfers to 11 million families in Brazil earning less than R$ 120 (Rs. 3,155) per member per month, providing they meet the conditions of school attendance and medical follow-ups. It is cited as the reason why Brazil has managed to reduce the number of poor households from 24.3 million in 1998 to 8.9 million in 2008. The programme is the one of the main reasons why President Lula enjoys unprecedented popularity, so much so that his opponents are using his photograph in their election campaign.

Inequality

Although a thriving economy, inequality still skews Brazilian society. “At every level – national, regional and even within cities, there is a lot of heterogeneity. This census will help us identify them, and target policies,” says de Castro. “The geospatial data in the census will help us to decentralise information. Local municipalities will have reliable information to plan and avoid overlaps in policy.”

In Rio de Janeiro, where high-rise condos, huge villas and slums live in close proximity, it is the elite areas that are most impenetrable for census staff. “In the favelas (slums), people welcome us. It is not difficult for our staff, even though the gangs live there,” says Romualdo Rezende, regional director of the Rio census team. “But gaining entry in the elite, gated communities is most tricky. We have to send many letters to the security companies and put up photographs of the census staff. It is hard to track down residents.”

There are other Brazilians who are hard to reach, but who eagerly wait for the census taker's visit. Like those in Engenho II, who got electricity just two years ago. On the first day that the village had electricity, one mother refused to sleep at night. She stayed up with the lights on watching her child sleep — a sight she had never seen before. That's why people want to be counted. So that they don't remain in the darkness any longer.

(The writer was a participant in a press trip, organised by Apex Brazil, to report on the Brazilian census.)

More In: Comment | Opinion