Census in India a window into a changing nation
Hunched over a clipboard, squinting in the pale yellow glow of a street camp, Shika Shrivasta surveyed the grimy, wiggly boy in front of her.
“Address?” she asked, and he gestured vaguely at the park around them. She frowned at her papers: runaway nine-year-olds, jittery from solvent sniffing, do not have a category in India’s census.
In the developed world ... you can post out the census form and people fill it up and mail it back. Here, census is a human drama —C. Chandramouli, India's registrar general
But the pair made their way through the form – the boy, Vishnu, doesn’t work or go to school – until they were done and Ms. Shrivasta waved him on, turning with a sigh to the next homeless person sleeping rough on the streets of central Delhi.
“Everyone,” she repeated through slightly clenched teeth, “has to be counted.”
India concluded its national census this week, having tallied up some 1.2 billion souls, and the last night of counting focused on homeless people – of whom there are an estimated 150,000 in Delhi alone. Getting them into the count was just one in an array of staggering challenges: how to enumerate in the dozen areas under control of various armed rebel movements, and in the 572 tiny islands that make up Andaman and Nicobar; how to train 2.5 million enumerators and handle answers in 6,661 languages.
“In the developed world, you have a tremendous advantage, where you can post out the census form and people fill it up and mail it back,” said C. Chandramouli, India’s registrar general and census commissioner. “Here, census is a human drama.”
It is also a window into how India is changing.
This census, for example, allows a respondent to list a gender of male, female or “other” – part of a growing acceptance of transgendered people.
There is a series of questions on mental and physical disability, which Mr. Chandramouli said has likely been sharply underreported in the past because of stigma.
There is also, for the first time, a question about divorce (in the past “divorced” and “separated” were one category) since anecdotal evidence suggests that many more married people separate than formally divorce. “We will see. Does anyone actually do the [divorce] process? And then it will be for the legal system to work out if the system is too difficult,” the commissioner said.
The census attempts to collect some data on fertility, asking women not only how many children they have living, but also how many they have ever given birth to. However, only women who say they are now or have been married are asked about children; there is no question about births out of wedlock, although originally the registry office had planned to collect that data.
“When we field tested the question, we found the enumerators were not asking at the household itself, but going to the next house and then saying, ‘I know you do not have such people in your family, but what about at that house?’ ” Mr. Chandramouli said. “You have to hand it to them for innovation – if I put the question on, they will get an answer for me.”
Census results may help evaluate the impact of the massive social welfare programs undertaken by India’s ruling Congress Party in recent years. A huge investment in universal primary education may be reflected in higher literacy rates or higher reported school enrolment. (Or it may not: Critics, who say the program has foundered on a lack of skilled teachers and poor planning, may be vindicated by the results.)
And the rural employment guarantee scheme, the world’s largest public works initiative with an annual budget of about $10-billion (Canadian), may be responsible for a drop in the number of people who report having worked for at least a few months in the past year, or who say they migrated for economic reasons. (Globe and Mail)