I make it a point to post something on this blog every 26th of January, to commemorate the day “we, the people of India” gave to ourselves a brand new Constitution.
A Constitution that was to become the template for the healing of a bruised, battered and partitioned motherland, which promised a unified, caring and modern home to its children of every persuasion, weaving their diversities into the fabric of nationhood, embroidered with the silks of optimism, hope and learning.
It had the gumption to include in its Fundamental Duties, Article 51A(h): “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. Towards this end, the most world renowned institutions of learning were born like TIFR, BARC, ICAR, ISRO, IISc, IITs, IIMs etc whose alumni adorn so many global corporates today.
Social research too was given its due and Indian research organisations soon acquired the reputation of providing the most reliable social and demographic data among the developing countries. Such data are a boost to coherent policy-making and scientific planning, resulting in the optimum utilisation of scarce resources. The lynchpin, of course, was to be the decadal Census of India, and its conduct became a Union subject under Article 246 of the Indian Constitution, and it is listed at serial number 69 of its Seventh Schedule.
A census essentially reveals the demographic profile of the nation which is vital for many reasons like the conduct of health, education, and agriculture surveys, the design and implementation of policy, and for administrative decision-making. The data collected through the Census is also used for the management and evaluation of various programmes run or to be introduced by the Government, NGOs, academics, researchers, as well as commercial and private enterprises.
Census data is also used for the demarcation of constituencies and allocation of representation to the Parliament, State Legislative Assemblies and local bodies. And the Finance Commission gives grants to the States on the basis of population figures available from the Census data.
Ever since the First Census of 1881, India kept its date with the Census – once a decade, hundreds of thousands of enumerators visited every household in one of the most populous countries on the planet, to gather information about individuals, families, livelihoods, economic conditions, migration status, societies and cultures.
Sadly it took a pandemic like Covid to disrupt this schedule. However, what would have been a short disruption of a few months has unfortunately become a deliberate postponement of indefinite length. Politics once more trumps development and governance – if there is no Census, it will be difficult to hold the incumbents accountable for the rising poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and declining labour ratios at the next General Election. Not to mention that political interference in the statistical institutions of the country calls into question the integrity of Indian data and does untold harm to India’s reputation globally.
As expected, it’s always the poorest of the poor who pay the price. For instance, since the government still depends on population figures from the 2011 census to determine who is eligible for aid, more than 100 million people are estimated to be excluded from the subsidised food grain Public Distribution System, and millions of children are left with inadequate schooling and nutrition. What’s left to say…
I sometimes wonder why every post which begins as a celebration of our nationhood on every Republic Day becomes a lamentation by the end.
I am beginning to despair…