Daunting Demographics: Examining India's Census

Article excerpt

Dr. M. Vijayanunni is the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India.

As Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, Dr. M. Vijayanunni oversees the civil registration operations of the Republic of India. Most significantly, he is in charge of administering the 2001 census, which promises to be the most comprehensive census exercise to date. Hailing from the state of Kerala in southern India, Dr. Vijayanunni is a member of the federal civil service of India. He completed his Ph.D. in Population Studies and has been associated with census and population studies for the past two decades.

Editor-in-Chief Sujit Raman and Interview Editor Pedro Pimental spoke with Dr. Vijayanunni in late February about the social and political issues that will be raised by India's next population enumeration, and the challenges posed by running the census of the world's second-most populous nation and largest democracy.

HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW:

A census is important for reasons far beyond that of providing a simple head count of the population: what will be the biggest surprise of the 2001 census data once it is presented?

The Census holds a mirror to contemporary society, takes a faithful snapshot of it with all its strengths and weaknesses, and presents it as a reference for contemporary society and as a guide for future generations. Thus, while each census is an important event on its own, the census of India in 2000-2001 will be even more so, as it comes not only at the crossroads of a millennium but also because it is the first census after the liberalization process was launched by the Indian Government in 1991. The next census will therefore provide valuable information about the consequent changes in the society, economy, and demography of India.

Also, the 2001 census will be a path-breaking one in the collection of data and it will implement a number of improvements and new initiatives in procedures, processing, and presentation. The sheer population size of India may itself be the surprise of the 2001 census. A well-known cartoonist had in a lighter vein exhorted the census enumerators to fearlessly expose the "excesses of the public" at the time of the previous census. What he was referring to was the rapid population growth in the country. Each census in the recent past has found the population projections to be underestimated. Let us wait and see what the 2001 head count reveals in regard to numbers, which are expected to be a billion plus for the first time in India's history. According to the estimates based on present trends, India's population is expected to cross the billion mark on May 11, 2000.

Many other interesting and fascinating data on the Indian society will also be revealed for the first time by the next census. For instance, we will ask people about their eating habits and tabulate statistics on vegetarianism and meat consumption. Given that India comprises one-sixth of humanity and the impact that food demand has on the environment, this data will be vital. Another intriguing piece of information will be about commuting to work, the distance travelled, the mode of travel, and the time taken in commuting to work. Yet another breakthrough will be data about the aged, how many of them require financial or physical support and, on the other side of the coin, how many of them are care-givers and supporters of their families. These are just a few of the new questions we will be asking.

The 2001 Indian census has been described as the most extensive census the world has seen. Please tell us more about the logistics of the census: the number of employees involved, the time frame the census will be conducted in, the amount of money invested, the general administrative scope of the undertaking.

The Indian census is indeed the most extensive census in the world. It sends enumerators to every household, including all the homeless, to every nook and cranny of this subcontinent-sized country of over three million square kilometers. …