The Problematics of Census in India

Posted on July 29, 2010 in Society

By Sango Bidani:

There have been a couple of controversies regarding the census in the recent past. The recent one was the controversy regarding the clubbing of housewives alongside beggars, prostitutes and prisoners in the economically non productive category. Absurd as it may sound — this is what has been done in the census data collection for the upcoming census. Preceding this controversy is the controversy regarding whether a caste census should be conducted or not, which still is left unresolved. We will begin this article by understanding the meaning of a census, a brief look at the history of census pre independence and what changes were noticed post independent. We will also look at the problematic areas of the census and try to find a solution to these. But before all that, we need to understand what is meant by census.

A census is the procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of a given population. It is a regularly occurring and official count of a particular population. It can be considered a tool in the hands of governments that can help in formulating various ‘pro-people’ policies although from our experience in India this cannot be totally said to be true. During census collection, govt. appoints various people to collect data based on the questionnaire provided by the Govt. of India and then collate that data, so that this data can in turn be used to create various policies.

We must remember in India’s case that census collection had been going on from the British Times. The first official census conducted by the British was 1801. After that, almost periodic censuses were conducted. However we must understand that at that time census was isolated to the area that the British were ruling and not the whole of India per se. Also, the purpose of the census done by the British was quite different from the current purpose of the census. The British conducted the census to estimate what was the proportion of black (Indian population) and white (British Population) in a particular colony. So the purpose of the census was to cause segregation of people on the basis of skin color and in the process create segregated colonies where the Indian and British population would live.

Now the purpose of the census is completely different albeit under the garb of secularism. These days the purpose of collecting census data is to help the government form various policies which are ‘pro-people’ in nature although we can continue to debate forever whether the govt. actually makes pro people policies or not. The way the data is collected in India is that a questionnaire is made where all the basic questions like age, date of birth, no. of children, marital status, name of parents, work done by the members of the house and the like. Apart from these quintessential data the census also tries to find out the caste you belong to especially if you live in a rural area and also what kind of job you do. After collecting all this information, the census officials create groups to put together people according to the kind of work they do. This is where one of the problems comes into light. The problem lies in having water tight categories to characterize a kind of work that a particular person is doing. For example, let’s take the category in which the controversy has come to light. The census of India has created various groups or categories to help them distinguish one kind of job from other or a kind of work, of which one of them is economically unproductive category. Now, the problem lies in how we define economically unproductive and if we assume that the basis for including a person in this category is money, then it is not correct to include prostitutes in this category as they do earn some kind of money even if that is not white money but the fact remains that it is money all the same. So it is unfair to group prostitutes in the economically unproductive category. And as for housewives there appears to be some logic in that they do not earn money but then that is because of social stereotypes although it must be accepted that many women are breaking away from this stereotype. Leaving that aside, it is unfair to group the housewives in the same group as beggars and prisoners. There need to be sub categories in some of these categories otherwise the controversy will continue to haunt the census officials every time they conduct the census. Then another problem with the census is that there is no way of determining whether a person does belong to the SC/ST section or are the people fabricating the details so that they can get the benefits of belonging to that group like needing lower marks to enter college, and this is just one example of the benefit that an SC/ST student can get, not to say that all people fabricate their status, but still there needs to be some check mechanism to ensure that such a thing does not take place in the future.

The greatest of all controversies that the census has faced is whether there should be a caste census. Here again, it is easy for people to fabricate their status so that they can get more benefits than they should usually get. Plus, if we do have caste census then it might end up having an adverse affect as people from higher castes will end up with all the goodies and the lower caste condition would remain the same given the track record that we have, which we have to admit, for a country with such high ideals like democracy and secularism, is particularly poor.

So, all in all, we have to improve on the categories that we have for working and non working people and there is a need to look into the feasibility of a caste census, whether it will end up harming the social fabric or not and last but not the least there needs to be a system of check mechanisms to stop people from fabricating about their status in society. So lot of work needs to be done so that the problems that are currently being faced during the census surveys can be reduced, if not eliminated.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz. With his interests in socio-political issues, he is more than willing to change the ‘system‘. He sees himself as an ethical journalist in the years to come.

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