Soon to be most populous nation, Asian giant faces hurdles in counting its people

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 — initially due in 2021 but postponed because of its COVID-19 epidemic — has been 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 socioeconomic 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 labor force survey are estimations based on information from the census.

“In the absence of the 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 synchronized with existing identity databases, including the national identity card, called Aadhaar, which is taking time.

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

‘Open rivalry with data’

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 in 2024.

“This government has often displayed its open rivalry with data,” said party spokesman Pawan Khera. “On important matters like employment, COVID deaths, et cetera, 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.

The United Nations has projected India’s population could reach 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 — nearly the number of people in Brazil — to its population in 12 years.

India’s census is conducted by about 330,000 government schoolteachers 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 20 questions each time in 16 languages in the two phases that will be spread over 11 months, according to the 2021 plan.

The numbers will be tabulated, and the final data will be published months later. The entire exercise was estimated to cost 87.5 billion rupees ($1.05 billion) in 2019.

However, teachers have returned to school after the pandemic disruption, putting a new wrench in the census plans.

Arvind Mishra, a senior official at the All-India Primary Teachers Federation which has 2.3 million members, said teachers are bound by law to help conduct elections and the census. They have to conduct nine state elections this year and national elections in 2024, along with the census, and this would again disrupt their teaching.

Payments have also become an issue. Mishra said by law, the government must pay the teachers more for their efforts.

“They must roll out a systematic payment mechanism for the drill. Teachers deserve respect, and they can’t be running around demanding reimbursement for conducting the largest counting exercise on Earth.”