The Miracle of India's 1.2 Billion-Person Census: Choudhury

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By Chandrahas Choudhury

One Sunday morning a few months ago, there was a knock on the door of my little flat in Bombay. I opened it sleepily to find three officers of the state, who said they wanted to speak to me about something important.

If this were Stalin's Russia, I'd have been off to the gulag for the crime of poking fun at communism in my deeply allegorical novel. If this were a story by Franz Kafka, I'd have been led off for an offense mysterious even to those who had come to seize me. If this were a scenario imagined by my grandfather (a retired bureaucrat profoundly disappointed by my decision to earn my living as a wandering storyteller) then my visitors' intent would have been to persuade me to begin a career, belatedly, with the Indian Civil Service.

The reality, though, was at once more prosaic and more poetical. The three visitors were all schoolteachers, and they'd come to my door on their day off as agents of probably the largest peacetime operation in the world.

In the first year of every decade the government of India conducts a census of its citizens, maintaining a tradition stretching back to the first attempts of the colonial state in 1872 to put together an accurate picture of India. This year, about 2.7 million data collectors or enumerators, mostly people holding junior and middle-level posts in government services and volunteers, were sent into town and village over a period of three weeks to meet and learn about their 1.2 billion compatriots who constituted their data set. This year, India's Census Commission prepared the same questionnaire in 16 languages. See the English version here.

It seemed to me, as I sat down to answer questions about my mother tongue, marital status, occupation, housing, and income that the Census, much more than the national anthem or the Constitution or a sporting event, was the only project that brought all the people of India -- diverse, disordered and unruly, a dizzying array of ethnicities and a Babel of languages, more the idea of a nation than a nation -- together into one frame. The Census is also a project of great significance for almost any kind of policy. As the demographer Ashish Bose wrote in 2004:

For those who are unfamiliar with census history, let me state briefly that most momentous decisions shaping the history of modern India were taken on the basis of census data. The partition of India in 1947 was done on the basis of census data on religion. The reorganisation of states in 1956 was done on the basis of census data on mother tongue. The general elections ever since 1952 are conducted on the basis of delimitation of constituencies based on census data. The reservation of seats in parliament and assemblies is done on the basis of census data on scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The reservation of jobs for SCs and STs [scheduled castes and scheduled tribes] done on the basis of census data.

The Census project is so vast that a consolidated picture of what one newspaper called "a database on demography, economic activity, literacy and education, housing and household amenities, urbanisation, fertility and mortality, social structure, language, religion and migration" will be available only in 2012. But all through 2011 the office of the Census Commission had been releasing trickles (relatively speaking) of data about India today, many of which are of interest.

For instance, we now know from the Census's Provisional Population Totals, broken down state by state, that India's population is now 1.21 billion, up 181 million (close to the entire population of Brazil) since 2001. Despite the enormous numbers of people added in 10 years to a largely poor country struggling to adequately supply education and employment to its citizens, there was some good news in these figures. The average 10-year growth in population was down 3.90 percent from the previous decade, from 21.5 percent to 17.6 percent, the sharpest decline since independence.

Or, as the Census report called "Size, Growth Rate and Distribution of Population" put it, "although India continues to grow in size, its pace of net addition is on the decrease." It seems that by 2060, India might achieve population stability -- which wouldn't be bad for a country whose population tripled in the second half of the Twentieth Century. The other piece of heartening news is that literacy was up by almost 15 percent in the last decade, to a 74 percent rate from 64.8 percent in 2001. These figures give a sense of the enormous challenges faced by that much-maligned entity, the Indian state, in its efforts to attend to the needs and aspirations of its subjects.

The Census also has much to say about the changing relationship between urban and rural India. Although there are far more Indians living in rural areas than in cities -- about two people live in villages for every urban resident -- this is qualified somewhat by the information that, for the first time since independence, the absolute increase in population was greater in urban areas than in rural areas. This matter greatly exercised P Sainath, the distinguished rural affairs correspondent of the Indian newspaper The Hindu, who inquired into its possible causes in a two-part series last month. In a piece called "Decadal journeys: debt and despair spur urban growth," Sainath wrote:

Census 2011 shows us a huge turnaround, with urban India adding more people (91 million) than rural India (90.6 million) for the first time in 90 years. Clearly, something huge has happened in the last 10 years that drives those numbers. And that is: huge, uncharted migrations of people seeking work as farming collapses. We may be looking at — and missing — this cruel drama in the countryside. A drama of millions leaving their homes in search of jobs that are not there. Of villages swiftly losing able-bodied adults, leaving behind the old, hungry and vulnerable. Of families that break up as their members head in diverse directions.

[...] And yet, this great outflow of human beings from their homes in the villages is not spontaneous. A massive chain has sprung up of middlemen and labour contractors who gain heavily from this exodus and thus seek to organise it to their benefit. They supply labour at cheap rates to a variety of patrons — from town and city contractors and builders to corporations, including multinational companies. This not only helps depress the local wage, but also offers the patrons a pool of cheap labour that is desperate, unorganised, and thus relatively docile. The employers don't have to bother about the migrants' security, workplace conditions or any standard benefits a city labourer might know of and claim. To the workers, this system offers quick if low payments, crushing debt and unending despair.

It isn't just the answers in the Census forms that are likely to be revealing of Indian realities. Even the changes in the questions asked this time tell a story. Taking account of the growing material prosperity of Indians as well as the communications revolution of the last decade, the Census now asked respondents whether they owned a computer or a mobile phone. Showing a greater sensitivity to diversity in self-definitions of gender than before, the Census form allowed respondents for the first time to specify a gender other than "male" or "female."

Other subtleties and refinements in classification might confound non-Indians (we are told, for instance, that among the nine different options for "Type of roof," including mud and grass, there is a further division of Answer No.3, "Tiles," into hand-made and machine-made) but they supply a richer account of Indian realities to those who know how to interpret them. With regard to the matter of bathrooms, Census 2011 changes the old yes-or-no question of "Bathroom within the house" to "Bathing facility within the premises." This is a consequence of realizing "that bathroom within the house was a predominantly urban phenomenon."

And last, the Census, besides making an effort to connect to the youth through a Facebook page and a Twitter account, also had a mascot for the first time: a woman in a simple shalwar-kameez, representing the humble enumerator who goes from household to household in search of data. A page on the Census website told from the point of view of an imaginary enumerator enthused:

A billion plus persons to be counted by visiting 240 million households in just three weeks! Is this feasible? Can this be done?? What would be the quality of such an exercise??? Questions that naturally arise in everyone’s mind. I too had the same doubts when I was told that I was selected to be a part of this exercise. [..]

Today, after the three days of thorough training I have been given my confidence is high. The questions that plagued me have been resolved. The gigantic task that looked so unrealistic now seems quite achievable, why even simple. I only have to visit around 125 households and count a population of approximately 750-800 people in the three weeks from 9th to 28th February 2011. That means I only have to visit 5-6 households a day! As small drops of water make a mighty ocean, the 2.5 million enumerators would achieve the task of counting the 240 million households without any difficulty.

All year long, in my travels around the country, I've grown used to seeing scrawled above every doorbell I ring the words "Census 2011" -- perhaps the modern secular and political equivalent of finding that Father Christmas has left something at the bedpost of every child on Christmas Eve. Even to someone who isn't particularly nationalistic, there is something reassuring about this. One might say that it is through the Census form, more than any other document or procedure of citizenship, that the average man or woman of the world's largest democracy contributes his or her story to the story of his country.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at

-0- Oct/18/2011 22:24 GMT