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07 February, 2011

Counting the numbers

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The massive operation of counting the people of India enters the final phase this week when 2.7 million trained personnel will spread across the country to enumerate all those whom they can find. Census operations have been a regular decennial exercise since late 19th century. Rising population has made every census a bigger undertaking than the previous one.

China and India are the only countries with populations in excess of one billion. China crossed the one billion mark in 1980. India followed 19 years later. Currently China’s population is estimated at more than 1.3 billion and India’s at close to 1.2 billion. Demographers say there is little possibility of any other country entering the Billion Club.-- ulGf Today, Sharjah, February 7, 2011.

A few years ago the UN Population Division estimated that by 2016 India will have a population of 1.22 billion, which will be larger than the combined population of the countries of Europe including Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and the United States.

It also said that by 2045 India, with a population of 1.501 billion, will replace China, with a population of 1.496 billion, as the most populous country.

The British Indian authorities scheduled the first census in the subcontinent for 1871 but it materialised only in the following year. Since 1881 census operations have taken place every 10 years.

Departing from the practice at home, the British included in the Indian census data on race, religion and caste presumably to fine-tune their divide-and-rule policy. Early in the 20th century, one U.N. Mukherji of Kolkata, citing census figures, claimed Hindus would be swallowed up by others in about 420 years. The fear that he kindled still animates Hindu communalism.

The census data helped the socially backward sections to understand their plight and demand justice. By the 1930s, progressive princely states like Kolhapur, Mysore, Travancore and Baroda and British-ruled Madras Presidency introduced reservation in the services and in educational institutions for them.

In 1941, the colonial administration, under the influence of the dominant castes already well entrenched in the bureaucracy, decided to stop collection of caste data. However, at the instance of an organisation of the Maithili Brahmins of Bihar, it gathered data about that community that year for a small fee.

The Constitution, as amended in 1951, empowers the government to make special provisions for advancement of socially and educationally backward classes. Absence of reliable caste data has hindered identification of groups which need such provisions. Conceding demands by some political parties and social organisations, the government has agreed to gather caste data this year. This will be done separately between June and September, after the census operations are completed.

Work on the 2011 census began on April 1 last year. By September, the enumerators completed listing of houses in all but some villages under the control of Maoist rebels. An attempt will be made soon to go into those villages too.

This time, besides counting all people in the territory of India and classifying them on the basis of gender, religion, occupation and education, the enumerators will gather data on a number of other subjects. These will include personal particulars like nationality and whether they have bank accounts and cell phones and whether they use the Internet.

On the basis of the data the government will prepare a National Population Register which will contain photographs and fingerprints of all persons. It will be sent to the Unique Identification Authority of India which has been authorised to generate a Unique Identity (UID) for each resident of India who has completed 18 years and issue a smart card.

The UID project, estimated to cost about Rs1,500 billion, has been entrusted to an independent authority headed by information technology expert Nandan Nilekani.

The government claims the data bank will help draw up focussed development plans. However, a section of civil society views it as an intrusion into civil liberties and has mounted a campaign against it.

“Let us not be naïve,” Jean Drèze, development economist with special interest in issues like hunger, rural employment and gender inequality, said recently. “This is not a social policy initiative. It is a national security project.”

Critics point out that India, which has no reliable data protection law, is not equipped to deal with problems like trading and selling of information which other countries with national identification systems have faced.

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