Census and sensibility

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By Shailaja Chandra

In a country with a population of over 1 billion, not even a fraction of people is aware of the gigantic story which the forthcoming census can reveal. For the average Indian, the census is just another event—an eager enumerator’s home visit in February, followed by a flash of newspaper headlines in March.

The number game: Officials sorting data from the census form

Although a mind-boggling mass of data is generated by the census, its availability is limited to what the Registrar General of India (RGI) decides to reveal. Even after the data is released at the national level, it takes years for the district data to be published. The release of district data for 2001 came only in 2007. An interesting finding popped up from the data pertaining to Delhi—nearly 40 per cent of the population lived in one room; virtually every household owned a television set but a quarter of the families still had no toilet in their homes. Published six years after the census, no one gave it another glance.

There can be no better tool for meaningful planning than the census. But the delay in the release of disaggregated data causes it to lose relevance. Besides, most officials are ill-equipped to capture and project data that can raise uncomfortable questions. There is, therefore, a pressing need to package the census results in a way that they add meaning and content to planning.

Some nationwide surveys, despite covering not even 1 per cent of what the census encompasses, carry enormous weight because their results are easy to decipher. For instance, the National Family Health Survey [NFHS-3 (2005-06)], providing state-level estimates primarily on women’s health and the District Level Health Survey [DLHS-3 (2007-08)], focusing on women’s reproductive health indicators, are used extensively not just by academics but by health planners, the media and NGOs. Comparative charts and colourful maps are used to flag the high or low rankings on all indicators, making it easy to understand.

The census data is unfortunately difficult to chew and digest and remains coddled in the presentations of research institutions, think tanks and demography seminars. It does not throw up questions, debate or excitement within civil society when it contains information down to every household.

The census exercise is something of a miracle considering the rudimentary set-up of the RGI’s office, which operates from World War II barracks on Mansingh Road in Delhi. But no taxi or scooter driver has ever heard of it.

In countries like the UK, the policy mandates that census data should be accessible and free. There is no such law in India and the RGI’s office sells CDs for 0400 only through designated offices. How much better would it be if they could be distributed across colleges, secondary schools and libraries. A film on national television should broadcast how custom-built maps, graphs and charts can be shaped.

In 2007, the National Population Stabilisation Fund called Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh (JSK) put up PDF maps of every district on the internet, displaying district health facilities superimposed on GIS maps. Overnight, it was possible to see the clustering of primary health centres and sub-centres in different talukas. Even the distance of every village from the nearest health facility could be viewed easily. Based wholly on census data, it was executed with the help of the National Informatics Centre in just four months.

As Prabhat Jha, a leading Canadian public health researcher who works with the RGI’s office, puts it, “The Reserve Bank of India represents India’s monetary policy. The census is no less—it represents India’s central bank for social policy.”

The author was the first executive director of the National Population Stabilisation Fund, Government of India.

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