Nearly all COVID-19-related restrictions have been lifted across the world and India, but the Centre has no plans to restart the decennial Census operations which were halted due to the pandemic. While a letter sent by the Registrar General of India (RGI) to States in June cited COVID-19 for the continuing delay, the real reason could be a possible revamp of the entire design of the Census operations, according to an official.
The government sits on the drawing board to make the changes, even as the first phase of the decennial exercise that was to be completed in 2020, has been postponed indefinitely. The RGI letter added that “time period for conducting the ensuing Census is not decided yet”.
In a glimpse of what could be in the offing, Home Minister Amit Shah on May 9 in Assam said, “A new software — e Swaroop is being developed. After a child is born, the details will be automatically updated in the Census register. After someone turns 18, the name will be added to the electoral register. After death, the name of the will be deleted from the voters list. If you change residence and there is a new registry, you will get an SMS asking whether you bought the property or were transferred there or if there is any other reason? The details will be updated in the Census register automatically based on your answer.”
The Hindu reported in October 2021, that several amendments being proposed to the Registration of Birth and Death Act, 1969 will enable the Central government to put in place a dynamic Census register, with nearly real-time updating of all demographic data.
The proposed amendment is to “maintain database of registered birth and deaths at the national level” and the database may be used to update the National Population Register, Electoral Register, Aadhaar, Ration Card, Passport and Driving Licence databases.
Officials said the delay in restarting the 2021 census may be linked to plans to amend the 1969 law.
Since March 2020, parliamentarians have raised the issue at least 36 times in the question hour in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
Former RGI M Vijayanunni told The Hindu that Census was not interrupted even at the height of the Second World War and suddenly one decade was missing from the table.
“There is a data gap from 2011-22. The government is working on population projection that is compiled by a committee. The committee gave projections in 2020, but it has its own limitation and the data is not accurate,” said Mr. Vijayanunni who headed the division from 1994-99.
According to the 2020 Report of the Technical Group on Population Projections, the population of India is expected to increase from 121.2 crore in 2011 to 152.2 crore in 2036.
As per provisional data compiled by the RGI, the total number of districts has gone up from 640 in 2011 to 736 in June 2021.
He said the 2021 Census whenever it is held in future cannot be called the ‘Census of India 2021’ because the population count taken then will not be that of 2021 but that of the year in which it is held. He said the policies and decisions of the government in 2022 are still being based on 2011 data, the last time Census was done.
Despite the pandemic, U.S. U.K. and Bangladesh completed the Census exercise in 2021 and 2022 respectively. A Home Ministry spokesperson did not respond to the query on reasons for delay in conducting the Census exercise.
Former Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai said he was approached by the Home Ministry a few months ago to seek his views on holding the Census. “The government should take a quick call and the delay is not good and has ramifications,” Mr. Pillai said.
Explaining one of the implications, Mr. Pillai said that the Finance Commission allocates funds based on the Census figures and any delay could put the States at a disadvantage.
A senior government official said that if the first phase of Houselisting and House Operation is not undertaken in the first quarter of 2023, the exercise cannot be completed by March 2024, which will be too close to the general elections. The National Population Register (NPR) that already has a database of 119 crore residents is to be updated along with the first phase. Many States and social organisations have opposed the NPR calling it the first step toward compilation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). India hosts the G20 summit in 2023 and the government is treading cautiously to avoid any kind of street protests and violence when the world leaders are here.
A senior government official said that Census and NPR can be delinked. “It was decided to update the NPR along with first phase as enumerators would have done it simultaneously, saving resources and time. But there is no law that states that it is to be done together,” said the official.
The RGI on June 15 informed the States that freezing of boundaries of districts, sub-districts, tehsils, talukas, police stations etc. has been postponed till December 2022. Freezing of boundary limits of administrative units, at least three months prior, is a pre-requisite for conducting the Census. Even if the RGI issues an order in December to freeze the boundaries again, the exercise can only take place in March 2023.
In March, the Union government amended the Census Rules framed in the year 1990 to allow the details to be captured and stored in an electronic form and also make a provision enabling self-enumeration by respondents.
The first phase of Census 2021 -the Houselisting and Housing Census - along with updating the NPR was scheduled to be held from April-September, 2020, but was postponed indefinitely. The second and main phase of the decennial Census exercise— the population enumeration — was to be concluded by March 5, 2021.
Around 30 lakh enumerators who are mostly government officials and government school teachers will each be assigned the responsibility to collect details about 650-800 people through both online and offline mode.