Citizenship and Related Issues

Census 2021 and the long-pending reforms


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Census of India

Mains level : Need for reforms in Census and Surveying

  • In all likelihood, the February 2021 Census will have to be rescheduled to ensure comparability with earlier censuses.
  • This will also affect the National Sample Surveys and others that use the census as the sampling frame.
  • The delay can, however, be used to introduce much-needed reforms to this gigantic exercise whose roots go back to the late 19th century.

Try this question for mains:

Q.The Census of India needs a basic overhaul beyond its procedural digitization. Critically analyse.

Background: Census of India

  • The decennial Census of India has been conducted 15 times, as of 2011.
  • While it has been undertaken every 10 years, beginning in 1872 under British Viceroy Lord Mayo, the first complete census was taken in 1881.
  • Post-1949, it has been conducted by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
  • All the censuses since 1951 were conducted under the 1948 Census of India Act.
  • The last census was held in 2011, whilst the next will be held in 2021.

Census 2021

  • The Census 2021 will be conducted in 18 languages out of the 22 scheduled languages (under 8th schedule) and English, while Census 2011 was in 16 of the 22 scheduled languages declared at that time.
  • It also will introduce a code directory to streamline the process
  • The option of “Other” under the gender category will be changed to “Third Gender”.
  • There were roughly 5 lakh people under “other” category in 2011.
  • For the first time in the 140 year history of the census in India, data is proposed to be collected through a mobile app by enumerators and they will receive an additional payment as an incentive.
  • The Census data would be available by the year 2024-25 as the entire process would be conducted digitally and data crunching would be quicker.

Issues with the Census

(1) Data quality issues

  • The past four decades have seen a decline in the quality of data and growing delays in its release despite technological innovations.
  • The use of census data in delimitation and federal redistribution has been questioned on grounds of poor quality, while the Covid-19 pandemic revealed the obsolete and poor quality of data on internal migration.

(2) No major reforms

  • The legal foundation of the census has remained largely unchanged since newly independent India enacted permanent census legislation in 1948.
  • Despite sustained problems, the census has not seen any major reform after 1994 when both the Census Act, 1948 and Census Rules, 1990 were amended.

(3) Old methods and questionnaire

  • The methodological core – extended de facto (synchronous) canvasser-based enumeration – too has remained intact even though the length and layout of schedules changed quite a bit.
  • The Household Schedule, for instance, grew with the footprint of the state, from 14 questions in 1951 to 29 questions in 2011.

(4) Workforce issues

  • Data collection has not kept pace with improvements in data processing technology due to the lack of motivated and adequately trained enumerators.
  • Given the high salaries of school teachers, the modest honorarium paid for census work does not cover the opportunity cost of conducting the door-to-door enumeration.

Understand the ‘purpose’ of the census

Reforms should begin with the design of schedules based on a clear understanding of two essential functions of the census:

(a) Resource allocations

  • First, census facilitates the rule-based distribution of power and resources through constitutionally mandated redistribution of taxes, delimitation of electoral constituencies and affirmative action policies.
  • It is also used in routine policy-making across tiers of government.

(b) Population projections

  • Second, census serves as the sampling frame for surveys and is also the basis of population projections.
  • Other routine policies require distribution of the headcount by households, marital status, age, sex, literacy, migrant status, and mother tongue.
  • Put together, these variables are sufficient for choosing representative samples for surveys.

What can be done?

1.Cut the questions

  • Nearly half of the ‘Houselisting and Housing Schedule’ of the census is devoted to questions on household amenities and assets.
  • These questions can be dropped because the information can be more appropriately collected through sample surveys and administrative statistics.

Why put fewer questions?

  • Cutting down the length of unwieldy schedules has several advantages.
  • First, it will improve data quality by reducing the workload of enumerators.
  • Second, it will also free up senior census officials and help revive the earlier tradition of producing detailed administrative and other reports crucial for understanding the context of data.
  • Third, shorter schedules will seem less invasive and assure respondents uncomfortable with sharing too many details.
  • Fourth, it will cut down processing time and help in reducing delays in the release of data.

2.Dealing with data manipulation

  • There is poor accounting of migrants that distorts estimates of urbanisation as well as the inter-state distribution of the population.
  • There exists grassroots manipulation of data-driven by political and economic considerations.
  • There is a need to demystify census operations and build trust in the impartiality of the exercise, better scrutiny of electoral records and welfare schemes to weed out bogus beneficiaries.


  • These reforms are essential to ensure that the census exercise is able to fulfil its constitutional, policy and statistical obligations and also clear the ground for debates on the future of census in the digital era.

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