The Centre’s decision to postpone the first phase of the 2021 Census , earlier planned to start on April 1, was expected in view of the COVID-19 outbreak that has brought life to a standstill in India and across the world. The 21-day national lockdown called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is until April 15, but the return of any semblance of normalcy in daily life will take many more weeks, if not months. India is still struggling to make sense of the extent and intensity of the pandemic and the accompanying and inevitable economic calamity. What is for certain is that all resources, public and private, will need to be mobilised, first for combating the malady and then for tending society and the economy back to its health and dynamism. The Census is a massive exercise, which involves mass contact and diversion of resources. According to the original schedule, the first phase, from April to September, would have included house listing and updating of the National Population Register, and the second phase, in February 2021, would have been population enumeration. The Centre has done well by putting off the first phase until further orders. State governments can now focus on the pressing task of combating the coronavirus.
The unexpected suspension of the Census operation also opens a fresh window, and an entirely new context, for reconciliation between the Centre and States on the exercise itself. If the NPR exercise, and the allied questions regarding citizenship rights had turned India into a cauldron of discord, the pandemic forced the collective attention of the country, nay the world, on the interconnectedness of modern life. Several State governments had made their opposition clear to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the additional questions in the NPR pro forma that many fear is a prelude to something more cynical and divisive that is based on some quaint ideas of nationhood. The Centre clarified that people could choose to not respond to these questions, but never bothered to address the underlying concerns. The pandemic is a reminder that the future of humanity is collective and cannot be fragmented. The Centre can turn this crisis into an opportunity to restore mutually respectful terms for relations with States and harmony among communities — both currently frayed. Unshakeable national unity is essential for the country to tide over the pandemic crisis. If India can come out of this more united and more resolute, the pains of the pandemic will fade sooner. The coronavirus is forcing the re-examination in many nations about national power. The Centre must use this sobering backdrop to analyse India’s priorities as a country and revisit its idea of citizenship and plans for the NPR.