Competition for scarce resources led tribals and non-tribals to inflate the headcount for two decades, but the 2011 census proved different

Nagaland’s population grew at decadal rates of 56 per cent during the 1980s and at 65 per cent in the 1990s. During this period, the State registered the highest growth in population in all of India. But, as per the 2011 Census, Nagaland’s population decreased by 0.47 per cent between 2001 and 2011. This is the first time that a state in independent India has witnessed an absolute decline in population in the absence of war, famine, natural calamities, political disturbance, or any significant changes in its socio-economic characteristics. And research has shown that demographic factors like birth, death, and lawful migration are insufficient to explain the changes in Nagaland’s population between 1991 and 2011.

What explains the decline in population after abnormally high population growth in Nagaland?

Delimitation

In a 2005 interview with journalist Sanjoy Hazarika, the Chief Minister of Nagaland Chief Minister, Neiphiu Rio, drew attention towards the competitive inflation of population figures in 2001 due to the threat posed by the impending delimitation of State Assembly constituencies. He argued that the hill districts dominated by Naga tribes feared a loss of five seats to Dimapur — the only plains district and the industrial and transport hub of Nagaland — which has a lot of non-tribals. The hills-plains divide overlaps with the Naga-non-Naga divide. According to Mr. Rio, the actual population of Nagaland in 2001 was six lakh less than the 2001 census figure of 20 lakh. He argued, however, that a recount would not help as there were “warnings from village and district levels that in the review, the population will increase, not decrease.” So, instead of stirring up a hornet’s nest, the Central and State governments adopted a cautious approach. To avoid ethnic conflict, the Centre deferred delimitation to 2031, while the State government rejected the 2001 census and concentrated on conducting the 2011 census properly. The State government canvassed the Opposition, the bureaucracy, and organisations of tribes, village elders, churches, and students to convince the people that a reliable and accurate census was indispensable “for (the) proper planning of development and also establishing political and social harmony.” While the government’s participative approach restored sanity to the process of census in Nagaland and is worthy of being adopted by other government survey organisations, the inflation of the headcount in the 2001 census requires scrutiny to recognise the underlying socio-economic factors that encouraged manipulation.

Nagaland’s small population (19.81 lakh) is divided into over two dozen tribal and non-tribal communities. Inter-community competition for scarce public resources manifests itself in a variety of ways in Nagaland: resentment against outsiders (Bangladeshis), movements for reservation in educational institutions and government jobs, demands for division of Nagaland along tribal lines, and inter-tribal feuds among insurgent groups. Until the late 1990s, hospitable conditions for the growth of the private sector did not exist and the State was the biggest actor in Nagaland’s economy, which added urgency to the competition for public resources. This was manifested more than anything else in the ever increasing voter turnouts over the years, as if the election were a census.

Ethnic factor

But when elections are reduced to an ethnic head count, winning censuses becomes necessary for winning elections. The Naga Hoho, the apex tribal council, admitted as much when it noted that the census has been a much misunderstood exercise in Nagaland and that people had equated it with electoral rolls. In 2001, the struggle for public resources took a new turn in Nagaland, when competitive inflation of electoral rolls spread to the census, as if the census was an election. The fear of losing Assembly seats to other communities in the 2002 delimitation of State Assembly constituencies triggered this novel competition, which blurred the distinction between census and election.

The conflict between Dimapur and the hill districts was the driving force behind manipulation of the 2001 census. The hill districts feared losing four Assembly seats to Dimapur if the Delimitation Commission relied on the 1991 Census.

Threatened by the possibility of loss of political representation, the hill districts inflated their numbers in the 2001 Census to the extent that the loss would have been reduced to just one seat if the 2001 Census was used for delimitation. Since the tribes were not all equally successful at false enumeration, conflict and litigation followed the census.

After 2008, when an Ordinance deferred delimitation in Nagaland (and Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh) to until after the first census after 2026, there was no incentive to inflate the population count. Moreover, the government was alert to the possibility of subversion of its data collection exercises. Unsurprisingly, a sample survey in 2009 revealed that the population count fell across the hill districts, which had heavily inflated the count in 2001. This was confirmed later — the 2011 census reported a negative growth rate of five per cent in the hill districts, whereas growth remained positive in Dimapur. If delimitation is conducted as per the 2011 census, then Dimapur will gain six seats at the expense of the hill districts.

So, deferring delimitation to the distant future is not a durable solution to the problem of ethnic competition. The government made the process of enumeration transparent by including all stakeholders in the census exercise. It convinced them that, in the interests of the Naga people, it was taking care to prevent manipulation in the census. However, how long this new consensus among the people on not interfering with official statistics will hold will depend critically on balanced regional and sectoral growth in Nagaland outside the public sector of the economy. With armed conflict on the ebb, this should not be difficult. In addition to the immense potential for tourism and handicrafts industries, Nagaland, being the second most literate State in the country, has the essential human capital for growth in the service sector.

(Ankush Agrawal and Vikas Kumar are with the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, and Azim Premji University, Bangalore, respectively.)

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