As the new government prepares to present the full budget for FY25 in July and RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das is confident of “a major structural shift” taking India “towards 8% GDP growth in a sustained manner” (as against average growth of 6% during the entire 2011-12 GDP series period and 4.6% in the past five fiscals), neither seem deterred by the biggest handicap: India-size data vacuum that the lack of Census 2021 data represents.

The national population census is not just fundamental source of most credible and comprehensive information about demographic and socio-economic conditions of any country but is also sine qua non for evidence-based policymaking, allocation of resources and public administration. Yet, for the first time in more than 150 years of census history (census exercise began in 1872) India has missed its date with census, having kept it “postponed” for more than three years due to Covid.

The Census 2021 was notified on March 28, 2019 (pre-pandemic) and the plan was to hold it in three phases during 2020 and 2021 – (i) housing and housing census during April-September 2020 (ii) population enumeration during February 9-28, 2021, to be followed by (iii) a revision round during March 1-5, 2021. The pandemic bedevilled all the three phases.

But the pandemic outbreak may not be the only reason. Here is why.

Explanation to postpone Census 2021

Firstly, the government and its various agencies carried out a series of other country-wide surveys (which is what a census is) during the very same pandemic period and after. Some of these are:

(a) Annual labour force surveys (PLFS) of 2020-21, 2021-22 and 2022-23 (July-June period) and for the full calendar year (CY) of 2023.

(b) Household consumption survey (HCES/MPCE) of 2022-23.

(c) Annual surveys of unincorporated enterprises (ASUSE) of 2021-22 and 2022-23.

(d) Annual survey of registrations of births and deaths under Civil Registration System (CRS) of 2020 – which pointed to excess deaths of 0.48 million in 2020 over 2019, presumably due to the pandemic.

(e) Health survey (NHFS-5) of 2019-21.

(f) SDG performance survey of states in 2020-21 (NITI Ayog).

(g) “Doubling farmers income: State-wise Synthesis” survey of 2022 by the ICAR – which claimed incomes of 75,000 farmers’ “doubled” during 2016-2022.

Second, a national daily tracked the UN’s statistics division to count 143 countries having conducted their national population census after the pandemic hit – post- March 2020 when the pandemic caused havoc worldwide – including the worst-hit, China and the US (both completed their census in 2020). India is in this league of conflict-ridden Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and many sub-Saharan African countries which haven’t (in all 189 of 233 countries conducted their last round of national census).

The pandemic may have initially delayed the Census 2021 but it could have been conducted while other country-wide surveys were being done (as listed earlier) or after the second pandemic wave (March-May 2021).

There is no word yet about when the Census 2021 operation resume will (pre-test was done in August-September 2019) – which raises another important question about the accountability and answerability of Indian government.

Why does Census 2021 matter? Here is one.

What data will 16th Finance Commission use?

The terms of reference (TOR) approved for the 16th Finance Commission by the Union Cabinet on November 29, 2023, doesn’t mention (a first) the population base for fixing tax distribution (shares).

This may mean the commission is free to decide whether to go by the Census of 1971 (as was the case for 7th to 13th FCs) or use the Census 1971 and Census 2011 (as the 14th FC did) or the Census 2011 (as fixed for the 15th FC for the first time).

It must be remembered that India has followed the Census 1971 data whenever population is a factor in allocation of Central assistance, devolution of taxes and duties and grants-in-aid to states since 1977 (Janata Party government) – to reward states which have performed better in population control.

This practice should have continued until the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats remain frozen (until 2026) but the TOR for the 15th FC (set up in 2018 by the incumbent government) changed that – sparking the first public protests/outbursts against the TOR of any Finance Commission from several states from south and east which have controlled population growth better.

In sharp contrast, the TOR of the 14th FC, fixed in 2013 (UPA-II) was wise to give the option of using both, Census 1971 and Census 2011, to capture certain demographic changes after 1971. Accordingly, the 14th FC used differential weightage – 17.5% weight for Census 1971 and 10% for Census 2011 (to account for “migration and age structure”).

If the 6th FC goes by the Census 2011, it would mean northern and central India backward (BIMAU) states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh getting rewarded for poor population control with higher tax devolutions, despite relatively lower tax revenue contributions.

Nonetheless, since the 16th FC is expected to give its report by October 31, 2025 (covering five years from April 1, 2026), there is time to fix that (if southern and eastern states exert sufficient pressure on the FC). The TOR for the 16th FC calls for formulating the principles to govern grants-in-aid to states (ii) and measures to augment states’ funds (iii) – apart from deciding tax distribution (i).

But this isn’t the only problem (due to the lack of Census 2021 data).

Dark side of lack of Census 2021 data

Consider the sampling errors (for selecting sample towns, villages and families by population, income, education and health facilities etc.) in the six surveys listed earlier (PLFS, HCES, ASUSE, CRS, NFHS, SDG but not the ICAR’s). All the samples were based on the 13-year-old Census of 2011. As Fortune India has demonstrated over the past few years, official statistics often make exaggerated claims about achievements using partial data and interpolation and extrapolation of data in absence of sound or real information (about plentiful jobs, reduction in poverty, improvements in HCES etc.).

Also consider exclusions from the coverage of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 – under which 813.5 million Indians get “free” ration (continue to get till December 31, 2028) on the basis of Census 2011. Going by the population estimates for 2023 (Lok Sabha answer of July 25, 2023[21]), about 119.4 million Indians are excluded from this “free” ration scheme (the entitlement is for 67% households).

The same goes for unknown numbers of beneficiaries who are deprived of financial assistance under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) – old-age pensions, financial assistance to widows and destitutes, accident victims, dependents in case of death of the primary breadwinner, maternity benefits etc.

Then there are other fallouts which are not so obvious.

For example, delay in holding Census 2021 has led to nine extensions to the date of “freezing the boundaries of administrative units” (both in urban and rural areas, like districts, towns, tehsils, municipalities, panchayats, revenue villages etc.) – beginning with the first freeze until December 31, 2019 to the last one until June 30, 2024. Since the census exercise usually takes about three months to identify and train the enumerators, the Census 2021 may begin by October 2024 (three months after June 30).

Such extensions also mean delay in delimitations of the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats. Hence, the “Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, 2023”, which reserved 33% of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies – and passed in a special parliamentary session of the Parliament in September 2023 – would have to wait for years (at least four to six years that the Census and subsequent delimitation would take). This raises doubts about the bona fide of extraordinary secrecy and hurry (no prior notice, without parliamentary panel scrutiny or due deliberations) in passing the law in 2023.

Factors that may influence Census 2021: NRIC, OBC census and delimitation

Quite clearly, the delay in holding Census 2021 is not only the pandemic outbreak but more. Two factors can be easily identified.

One is the plan for simultaneous preparation of the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC or a pan-India NRC), which was notified on July 31, 2019 (four months after the Census 2021 was notified on March 28, 2019). The purpose of pan-India NRIC was to identify “doubtful citizens” and by asking all to prove their citizenship through a number of documents – which had sparked a scare due its link with the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 notified on December 12, 2019 (nine months after the Census 2021 was notified).

Strong protests led to the Centre’s denial of NRIC plans later in December 2019 and nothing more has been heard of it. The CAA was put on hold until March 11, 2024 – when its rules were notified and citizenship were granted under these rules beginning with March 15, 2024. So, before the Census 2021 is rolled out, the Centre may like to take a fresh call on its NRIC plan.

There is another handicap: Collecting OBC data.

On September 21, 2021, the Centre had told the Supreme Court (in response to demands from several states) that it can’t and wouldn’t collect the OBC data with the Census of 2021 because it was “not feasible” since the preparations for the Census was over; besides, census was “not the ideal instrument” for it, there was “no such constitutional mandate” for counting OBCs and “exclusion” of OBC data from the Census “is a conscious policy decision”.

The affidavit didn’t explain why collecting OBC data was not made part of the Census 2021 since the Supreme Court had directed this data (all caste data) to be collected along with the Census 2011 – called “Socio Economic and Caste Census” (SECC) – because OBC quota was ubiquitous (jobs, education and local bodies) but without its population percentage known after 1931. The Centre also did not divulge the OBC numbers the SECC had found, saying that there were “technical flaws” in it, the data was “unusable” and it was impossible to verifying the caste credentials disclosed in it.

There is a strong case for the Centre to go for the Census 2021: Expanding the Lok Sabha seats in 2026 (when the freeze ends) which will benefit more populous states (BIMARU) and the ruling establishment. The new Parliament House already has expanded the seating capacity for this.

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