Day 73- General comment – We have to be counted before we count !

The Census of India 2011, Preliminary Results are out!

I am an ardent admirer of India’s mega administrative exercises – the Decennial Census, the General Elections, the Pulse Polio Campaign, the Total Literacy Movement, etc.  The sheer scale of these is mind-boggling.  The 2011 Census aimed to count over 1.2 billion people, filling up over 300 million “household schedules”, all in a period of thirty days.  This was achieved by employing  government school teachers as enumerators – over 2.7 million of them.

I first encountered the Census Operations in 1981, when I was still finishing my last term at the IIM Ahmedabad, but as it had few classes, I had gone off to Jawaja, the IIMA’s rural development project in Ajmer.  This time, the Census was happening  in the middle of my Shodh Yatra.   The Census begins with a mass awareness campaign, and I could see several hoardings all along. Apart from generally informing everyone that a Census is on, there were special messages for ensuring the enumeration of the disabled, for example.

A billboard announcing the Census 2011, in Chhattisgarh and seeking enumeration of the disabled

A bunch of demographers spend many years trying to ensure that the questions and the responses thereon are precise and coded.  The household schedule is translated into 16 languages, in addition to Hindi and English.  The enumerators are trained and each is given a manual of instructions. In one of the schools we visited near Dalli Rajhara in Chhattisgarh, the school teacher was absent, as he was away on “Census duty”.  Then there is the house listing operation, where every habitation is given a serial number and that number is painted on its exterior using “geru”.  The next day, I managed to catch one enumerator doing this in Jamgaon village in Dhamtari district.

A Census enumerator painting a number during house-listing operations

Then comes the actual household canvassing of the schedules, for which the enumerators go to all the houses in their assigned area, between February 8 and 28 of the Census year.  This Census, there were a total of 14 questions, covering name age, gender, religion, languages spoken, education level, marital status, employment status and occupation, place of last residence (to cover migration), housing amenities, disability status if any. I was lucky that when Siddharth and I came back to his house in Bolpur after we visited Shantiniketan, an enumerator and a supervisor turned up for the Census.  I requested them if I could see the schedule and they proudly showed me the neatly printed form (in this case in Bangla and English).  As they got Siddharth to answer the questions, I took pictures.

The Census 2011 Household Schedule

The enumerators were pleasantly surprised at my fuss, and I managed to explain to them why I found the Indian Census so important.  Apart from yielding very important aggregate and category-wise data for all kinds of planning, to me it represents the elemental gesture of the Welfare State reaching out to each citizen, recording her/his existence, by name.  Eventually, this is the basis for all entitlements.

Canvassing the household schedule at Siddharth’s house in Bolpur

The enumerators also go to institutions  – orphanages, prisons, and of course school and college hostels. The most touching aspect of the Census is the counting of the homeless, which I missed seeing this time but had seen in 1991.  On the night of February 28 of the Census year, lakhs of enumerators go out to every nook and cranny of each city and town, combing pavements, platforms, bus-stops and railways stations, abandoned sheds and even graveyards, to look for homeless and count them.  It is easy to be cynical about the State, but the fact that we have now been doing a Census successfully for over a Century is a matter to be applauded.

And quite wonderously, by early April, within just a month of the closure of the household canvassing,  the preliminary results are out!  We are over 1.21 billion of us Indians, one in every six human beings on Earth!  There was some good news – the population growth rate in the last decade has come down to 17.64%, which is a steep drop from 23.87% in 1981-91 and 21.54% in 1991-2001.  Surely, the aphorism that “development is the best contraceptive”  is beginning to be proven right. Literacy percentages have gone up, especially for women, which is the result of high enrolment rates for girls in school.  But enhanced  incomes and  literacy  do not seem to always translate into positive social outcomes – the female to male ratios are shocking low in developed states like Haryana and Punjab, while Jharkhand and Nagaland seem to be much better off on this front.  The underlying cause, the male child preference of people in the northwestern states may still take a decade or more to correct itself.  But serious corrective action must be taken, before this becomes a China like situation.

One has to await the detailed results.  I personally look forward most to what are called the “General Economic Tables” which not only give the number of person employed in the main occupations – agriculture, industry,  but also later according to three digit National Industrial Classification codes.  So one can find out, for example, how many persons are engaged in mining in Dhamtari or in fishing in the Sunderbans.  Looking forward…

In case you are interested in looking through the treasure trove of data from past Indian Censuses,  visit


About vijaymahajan

Educated at St XaviersSchool, Jaipur; IIT Delhi; IIM Ahmedabad and Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, USA; Co-founder of several development organisations - BASIX (, PRADAN (, Development Finance Forum (, Andhra Pradesh Mahila Abhivruddhi Society (, Sa-Dhan ( and the Microfinance Institutions Networrk ( Chair of CGAP Excom; BASIX Boards; DSC Board; Board member of MSSRF, ASSEFA, Gram Vikas Honours - WEF Davos Schwab Social Entrepreneur; Ashoka Global Fellow; IIT Delhi Distinguished Alumni Award; HSBC-Access Award for Outstanding Contribution to Microfinance in India; listed among India's top 50 most powerful people in India by BusinessWeek, Asia edition, 2010 Married to Savita, Deputy Dean, ISB, Hyderabad; two children, Chirag and Chandni
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