Why is India suddenly unable to conduct its regular census?

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Some time in the 19th century, many European states evolved from being skeletal institutions into vast bureaucracies claiming to represent the will of the people they governed. A key part of this transformation involved conducting a census: an unprecedented exercise which, to use the United Nations definition, involved the complete enumeration of a country’s population. Armed with this incredible data, the state could interact with its people in a way no other structure previously could. This is true even today. Even if other entities have vast amounts of technology at their disposal, it is only the state that can carry out a census. The census is therefore a key part of the identity of a modern state.

This context demonstrates how remarkable it is that India is now struggling to carry out its decennial census. While the exercise was to be conducted in 2021, the Modi government has now made it clear that it will not be conducted before 2024-’25. Given this is the sixth time that the latest census has been postponed, there is little clarity on whether the enumeration will be conducted even in 2024-’25.

What explains this remarkable situation?

The proximate reason, of course, is the politics of the National Register of Citizens.

Recap: In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party pushed hard on the threat to carry out a citizenship test aimed at Muslims. The panic this caused led to massive protests against attempts to weaponise citizenship law to target India’s minority citizens. As Scroll.in had first reported in 2019, the first step to carrying out an National Register of Citizens lay in an exercise called the National Population Register. While the National Population Register was not connected to the census, the enumeration for both were to be carried out together.

The population register and the citizens register had been linked to the census to make the former easier to carry out. But eventually, the connection ended up dealing a body blow to the census itself. Several states declined to prepare the National Register of Citizens. This was an unprecedented situation, since states legally have no say in citizenship. However, they hold a pocket veto on almost anything the Union government does given that in the Indian federal system, states are the implementing agency on the ground. Even worse, panic around the National Register of Citizens resulted in several attacks against people seen to be collecting data.

India has not missed a census since the British Raj started the exercise in 1872. It has not been stopped despite world wars and mass famine. The fact that India could not conduct a census for the first time in a century and half is an indicator of the depth of the the panic about the National Register of Citizens.

To add to the complications, a number of political interest groups have also started to demand that caste be counted in the census. Caste has not been counted in India for a century – an odd situation given that India bases so much of state policy on caste. If a caste census were to return figures that showed that backward castes were being undercounted, this would lead to demands for more reservations and questions around the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s significant 10% quota for poor upper castes.

Flailing state

The fact that India is unable to conduct a census points to two significant trends during Narendra Modi years. One if a significant breakdown in institutions and, as a consequence, state capacity – especially of the Union government. The starkest example of this is the Covid-19 pandemic, where the Union government simply vanished. The collapse led to the world’s highest Covid-19 toll.

The other is that India’s institutions have become highly politicised. The census was an uncontroversial part of the Indian state that all parties agreed on – that was, until the Modi government linked it to the controversial National Register of Citizens. A similar trend is observed in federal arrangements. The banal distribution of monies between states that were, till now dealt in a technocratic manner, have been harnessed for party politics.

No census impact

India’s inability to conduct a census on time will have wide-ranging consequences. The census is the country’s only mechanism that captures granular data down to the last village. While all-India and even state-wise data can be captured through other surveys, this granular village-level data can only be captured by a census. Without it, several government policies will be hurt as the India will be unable to plan its outreach programmes.

The most significant impact will be felt in the Public Distribution System, India’s massive architecture to give out subsided food. Crores of people are now excluded from their entitlements because the data on which the system relies was collected nearly a decade-and-a-half ago.

Less prosaic but maybe more long term will be the hit to India’s reputation. In spite of being poor, India has been a Third World exception when it comes to having a functioning state and, even more strikingly, world-class data-collection capabilities.

For example Pakistan has conducted only six censuses in the nearly eight decades since 1947 (this in spite of being having a marginally higher per capita income than India for most of that period). However, with India’s current inability to conduct the census on time, the country will be bracketed with countries with similar per capita incomes that also have poorly functioning institutions.

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