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Census and the Aam Admi

If the government is to modernise the census process, the next decennial census to be held in 2011 should make collection of information on the aam admi a priority.

COMMENTARY

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Census and the Aam Admi where the members belong to the aam admi category?
Data on Income
Ashish Bose The best test to determine an aam admi

If the government is to modernise the census process, the next decennial census to be held in 2011 should make collection of information on the aam admi a priority.

Ashish Bose (ashishb@vsnl.com) is honorary professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.

E
very politician, regardless of his or her political affiliation, while launching any project, invariably points out that it is for the benefit of the aam admi. It is difficult to determine how far the politician has gained and how far the aam admi has benefited.

The next decennial census to be held in 2011 offers a great opportunity to find out from the heads of the households in what way they have benefited from programmes like the National Rural Employment G uarantee Scheme, Sarva Shiksha A bhiyan, Mid-day Meal Scheme for schoolchildren, Integrated Child Development Scheme, Rural Drinking Water Mission, National Rural Health Mission, etc. Why not introduce two new questions and ask heads of households of aam admi whether they had at all heard about these schemes and if so in what way they benefited. This will be a national audit. But the problem the census takers will face will be: How to identify the households

may 16, 2009

would be the monthly or yearly income of the household. But the census, right from 1881 to 2001 has not asked any question on income. It has been argued that one cannot get reliable data on income because people will underestimate their income for fear of income tax, etc. This may be true of welloff households but a poor household to which an aam admi belongs will have no hesitation in stating their income. If at all, he might underestimate his income. In any case, the question on income should specify income groups like “below Rs 500; 5001,000” and so on. There is no need to collect the exact income; ask the respondents about income groups like below Rs 500; 500-1,000 and so on.

The National Sample Surveys do not collect data on income. But they collect data on household consumer expenditure on the basis of which several categories are made. This is a proxy for income c ategories.

The new census commissioner should introduce new questions on income in

vol xliv no 20

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

the 2011 Census questionnaire. But it is unlikely that he would do so because every census commissioner would like to play safe and conduct a “good” census. In that case the status quo will continue.

I am aware that the census commissioner would point out that the 2001 Census list of “household amenities” is very comprehensive and one could utilise these data to determine who is an aam admi. But such a list of so-called amenities is not crosstabulated with all the main tables of the census. For example, one will not be able to find out the literacy and educational level of the persons whose household does not have any of these amenities and therefore, comprises the poorest of the poor. One must also remember that the list of amenities is not intended only for the aam admi and is also meant for the middle class and the rich. The 2001 Census list of amenities leaves out important assets like mobile phone and tractors. The National Family Health Surveys which are conducted on a sample basis, have a much more comprehensive list which includes chairs, cots, beds, mattresses, etc. But why not ask a new question on income and landholdings, if any, and the size of landholdings?

Once we collect data on income and key assets, it should not be difficult to determine the number of aam admi households in every village, town and city in India. A census is not a sample survey and every single head of the household all over India has to answer the census questions.

The Organisation

Let me now turn to the census organisation. A joint secretary level IAS officer is appointed as the registrar general and ex officio census commissioner a few years before the actual census year, who works within the framework of the central government’s Ministry of Home Affairs, and there is hardly any scope to think out of the box. No doubt, the new census c ommissioner will organise one or two “data users’ conference”, listen to all the suggestions and finally take his own decision. On sensitive issues, he will consult the home secretary for guidance. In short, the 2011 Census will be more or less on the same lines as the 2001 Census which in turn was on the same lines as the 1991 Census and one could go backwards till the first census conducted in 1881.

Modernising the Census

There are at least three reasons why we must think urgently about modernising our census. First, no matter which government is in power, the question of full employment will be paramount and the 2011 Census must collect reliable and detailed data on employment and unemployment. Second, the next priority will be our concern for liquidating illiteracy, especially among women and ensuring that India becomes a country with zero illiteracy. We must have reliable data on literacy and educational level and also ascertain the level of skill formation among the people, literate or i lliterate. India’s large informal sector deserves high priority in term of data collection in the next census. Third, in view of the trend towards increasing migration, e specially rural to urban migration, the census should be able to capture the causes and impact of migration. As it is, the census does collect data on m igration in detail but if our focus is on the migrant worker, we have to collect a lot of more data. We can forget “marriage migration” and concentrate on “economic migration”.

On a personal note, I recall the outstanding census commissioner for the 1961 Census, Asok Mitra, an official from the civil service, who accepted my suggestion about putting a sub-question to the usual question on the place of birth, namely, r ural or urban, and also another question on the cause of migration. The data were tabulated for all the four streams of migration: rural to rural, rural to urban, urban to rural and urban to urban.

This list of priorities given above leaves out perhaps the most important item, namely, the below poverty line (BPL) population. As already pointed out, the Indian census does not collect any data on income and therefore it cannot help in arriving at a figure for the BPL population. This is a nother justification for asking an income related question in the 2011 Census.

In this context, I wish to refer to the Decennial Census Improvement Act of 1991 passed by the US Congress which entrusted the National Academy of Sciences to study “the fundamental requirements” of the census. Accordingly, a 20-member “Panel on Census Requirements in the Year 2000 and Beyond” (National Research Council 1995, Modernising the US Census, Washington DC) was appointed and its report “Counting People in the Information Age” was published in 1994.

I think it is still not too late for the c entral government to appoint a threemember Census Commission, on the lines of the Election Commission, to plan and conduct the 2011 Census. The commission should be headed by a secretary level

o fficer (working or retired) and have two members who are independent experts on the census. Our Election Commission has a good record of successfully conducting parliamentary and state elections. I am sure, the proposed Census Commission will also do a good job of modernising the census and conducting it efficiently all over India.

We have already discussed the need for focusing on the aam admi. The list of priorities which I have suggested, namely, the aam admi, youth, elderly, unemployed persons, may be too much on the census commissioner’s plate. If a three-member Census Commission is appointed without wasting times the task of thrashing out priorities, designing the questionnaire, tabulation scheme and manner of presentation of census reports, etc, could be entrusted to this commission. This will vastly improve the Indian census and break the status quo of relying on the judgment of a lone joint secretary, no matter how brilliant he or she may be. I would not recommend a panel of 20 experts as was done in the US. We have tried this type mechanism through Data Users’ Conference, but we did not make any headway as there were too many suggestions. The main constraint of a census questionnaire is that it has to be short and simple. Sometimes the simplest things are most difficult in life!

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 16, 2009 vol xliv no 20

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