Editorial: Counting Heads, The Right Way

Editorial: Counting Heads, The Right Way

FPJ EditorialUpdated: Friday, February 02, 2024, 11:30 PM IST
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Representative Image | File

Whether it was the occasion to announce it or not, India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman declared during her budget speech in the Parliament that the government was setting up a high-powered committee to examine the “challenges arising from fast population growth and demographic challenges” as well as the entire gamut of population-related issues. The announcement was met with the usual mix of laudatory voices from the ruling party and welcome scepticism by others. The announcement deserves a closer look given the government’s own record on data collection and management coupled with its disdain for the rationality that data brings to policy-making.

To be sure, the issues about population growth and demographic change must be mapped in a nation especially as large and diverse as India; there can be no two opinions about this. The need to map population and demographics was felt in colonial India more than a century ago and that, in a way, set down the tradition of the decadal Census surveys which continued almost uninterrupted every first year of a decade since 1921 with only a few exceptions. India’s last Census was in 2011. The Census enumeration was due in 2021 and the preparatory work for that would have had to start the previous year which, unfortunately, turned out to be the year of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government expectedly gave this as an excuse to not conduct the door-to-door enumeration exercise, the largest such exercise in the world. However, it has been three years since but the government has shown no inclination, let alone urgency, in getting the Census survey off the ground.

Data collection about different aspects of population is quietly on in the National Family Health Survey, Sample Registration System and other systems. However, they are nowhere as comprehensive as the Census survey. Instead of rationalising data from different surveys and kick-starting the all-important Census enumeration, the government is setting up a high-powered committee which is unlikely to have the statutory powers and autonomy that the Census Commissioner of India does. An explanation is that the ruling party has access to Aadhar details and granular data of homes across India amassed for election purposes, and therefore does not appreciate the need for the nation to have a comprehensive survey, or intends to collect data as part of the proposed citizenship survey. Whatever it may be, it is a step in the wrong direction; it may help the ruling party at this stage but will hurt the nation in the years to come.

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