India, soon world's most populous nation, doesn't know how many people it has

India's once-in-a-decade census, due in 2021 and delayed due to pandemic, has now got bogged down by technical, logistical hurdles

Commuters crowd on a platform as they wait to board suburban trains at a railway station in Mumbai, India, January 20, 2023.— Reuters
 Commuters crowd on a platform as they wait to board suburban trains at a railway station in Mumbai, India, January 20, 2023.— Reuters

  • Key government department continues to rely on old census data.
  • World's largest counting drill depends on teachers and tech.
  • Absence of precise data impacts economic policy at ground level.

NEW DELHI: In two months, India is projected to become the world's most populous country with over 1.4 billion people. But for at least a year, and possibly longer, the country won't know how many people it has because it hasn't been able to count them.

India's once-in-a-decade census, due in 2021 and delayed due to the pandemic, has now got bogged down by technical and logistical hurdles and there are no signs the mammoth exercise is likely to begin soon.

Experts say the delay in updating data like employment, housing, literacy levels, migration patterns and infant mortality, which are captured by the census, affects social and economic planning and policymaking in the huge Asian economy.

Calling census data "indispensable", Rachna Sharma, a fellow at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, said studies like the consumption expenditure survey and the periodic labour force survey are estimations based on information from the census.

"In the absence of latest census data, the estimations are based on data that is one decade old and is likely to provide estimates that are far from reality," Sharma said.

A senior official at the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation said census data from 2011, when the count was last conducted, was being used for projections and estimates required to assess government spending.

A spokesman for the ministry said its role was limited to providing the best possible projections and could not comment on the census process. The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Two other government officials, one from the federal home (interior) ministry and another from the office of the Registrar General of India, said the delay was largely due to the government's decision to fine-tune the census process and make it foolproof with the help of technology.

The home ministry official said the software that will be used to gather census data on a mobile phone app has to be synchronised with existing identity databases, including the national identity card, called Aadhaar, which was taking time.

The office of the Registrar General of India, which is responsible for the census, did not respond to a request for comment.

The main opposition Congress party and critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have accused the government of delaying the census to hide data on politically sensitive issues, such as unemployment, ahead of national elections due in 2024.

"This government has often displayed its open rivalry with data," said Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera. "On important matters like employment, COVID-19 deaths etc, we have seen how the Modi government has preferred to cloak critical data.”

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's national spokesperson, Gopal Krishna Agarwal, dismissed the criticism.

"I want to know on what basis they are saying this. Which is the social parameter on which our performance in nine years is worse than their 65 years?" he said, referring to the Congress party's years in power.

Teachers' travails

The United Nations has projected India's population could touch 1,425,775,850 on April 14, overtaking China on that day.

The 2011 census had put India's population at 1.21 billion, meaning the country has added 210 million, or almost the number of people in Brazil, to its population in 12 years.

India's census is conducted by about 330,000 government school teachers who first go door-to-door listing all houses across the country and then return to them with a second list of questions.

They ask more than two dozen questions each time in 16 languages in the two phases that will be spread over 11 months, according to the plan made for 2021.

The numbers will be tabulated and final data made public months later. The entire exercise was estimated to cost $1.05 billion in 2019.

However, teachers have returned to school after the pandemic disruption and have to conduct nine state elections in 2023 and national elections in 2024 besides the census and this would again disrupt teaching. Payments have also become an issue.

Arvind Mishra, a senior official at the All-India Primary Teachers Federation which counts 2.3 million members, said teachers are bound by law to help conduct elections and the census but government must increase the fees they receive.

"They must roll out a systematic payment mechanism for the drill," said Mishra. "Teachers deserve respect and they can't be running around demanding reimbursement for conducting the largest counting exercise on earth."

A former top official of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency that runs the highly successful national identity programme Aadhaar, however sought to downplay the significance of the decennial census data saying the identity programme is a "de facto, real-time" census.

According to UIDAI, 1.30 billion people were enrolled under Aadhaar on December 31, 2022, against a projected population then of 1.37 billion. The gap would mostly be children who are not enrolled and deaths that are not updated, the former UIDAI official said.

Pronab Sen, a former chief statistician of India, said the sample registration system (SRS) which estimates birth and death rates shows the population growth rate with reasonable accuracy.

Unlike Aadhaar, the SRS survey counts a representative sample of births and deaths and uses it to project the count for a larger region.

"It's not exact," Sen said. "The problem is that SRS and projections that we have are reasonably accurate if the country is taken as a whole. What it will not give you is the distribution of people in different geographies within the country."