India Policy Watch #2: Census 2021
Insights on burning policy issues in India
– Pranay Kotasthane
The 16th Indian population census will be conducted later this year. The 2021 Census of India will be the country’s first digital census. Expect another Aarogya Setu-type mobile phone app and “server not reachable” complaints. That apart, this census will be the first India-wide demographic exercise in a new era of radically networked societies. Be prepared for fresh narratives, misinformation campaigns, and misleading claims.
The stakes are quite high as well — Census 2021 data will be the basis of the next delimitation of electoral constituencies. This will be an interstate delimitation meaning that the number of parliamentarians each state sends to the Lok Sabha will change for the first time since 1973.
Though it seems like a boring counting exercise, the census reveals a lot about a State and Society, both. Here’s how.
Census as a Measure of State Capacity
Many political theorists have obsessed over this one question — what are the leading indicators for state capacity? Some common answers are the ability of a state to raise taxes as an indicator of its economic power; and the ability to remain entrenched as an indicator of its political power.
My submission is that census-taking is as fundamental an indicator of state capacity as raising taxes and can be used to measure the effectiveness of states. A count of the populace is quintessentially a political exercise. It is an extension of the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force. The state counts residents and classifies them based on the criteria of its own choosing with the intent that such a categorisation will aid in governance delivery. A corollary is that a state that is unable to convince its residents about a process as fundamental as counting and categorising them, can be considered as a weak state.
The Indian state has done reasonably well on this count. A census has been held every ten years without fail. In fact, census taking precedes the Republic of India and has been held continuously every ten years since 1872.
While we take this feat for granted, we only have to look at our western neighbour to understand why this is non-trivial. Pakistan has only had 6 nationwide censuses — 1961, 1972, 1981, 1998 and 2017. Moreover, the results of the 2017 census have still not been made publicly available.
Census as a Measure of Social Capital
Deborah Stone in her book Policy Paradox writes that every number is a political claim — a judgment about categorisation and an assertion about similarities and differences. By that logic, the inability to conduct a census indicates a lack of consensus in a society on the relative significance of different categories used to classify the population.
Stone goes on to list eight reasons why a counting exercise such as census taking is explicitly political.
“1. Counting requires decisions about categorizing, about what or whom to include and exclude.
2. Measuring any phenomenon implicitly creates norms about how much is too little, too much, or just right.
3. Numbers can be ambiguous, and so leave room for political struggles to control their interpretation.
4. Numbers are used to tell stories, such as stories of decline (“we are approaching a crisis”).
5. Numbers can create the illusion that a very complex and ambiguous phenomenon is simple, countable, and precisely defined.
6. Numbers can create political communities out of people who share some trait that has been counted.
7. Counting can aid negotiation and compromise, by making intangible qualities seem divisible.
8. Numbers, by seeming to be so precise, help bolster authority of those who count.”
The creation of new political communities through a mere counting exercise is ordinarily a welcome development. It can create new demands, new negotiations, and new compromises. However, in a society stricken by deep divisions and mutual hatred, the same counting exercise becomes a fomenter of new troubles. This is another reason why census exercises have been troublesome for Pakistan.
For example, Baloch nationalist parties wanted the 2017 census to be postponed until refugees from Afghanistan were repatriated and Balochis in exile were brought back. This illustrates Deborah Stone’s first reason for why counting is political — it is a conscious decision about who should be included and who shouldn’t be.
Second, the entrenched Punjabi elite’s opposition to the 2017 census was that a population count might lead other states to question its primus inter pares status. Being the centre of Pakistan’s economic growth story, Punjab’s population growth slowed down faster than the other provinces. If census numbers confirmed this, it was bound to raise questions about the disproportional political influence (in terms of the share of seats in the National Assembly) and economic influence (in terms of the share of monies in the Federal Divisible Pool) that Punjab enjoys. This illustrates Stone’s second and third reasons.
Census data could also reflect the decline in women’s marriage rates, an upward shift in the age at which women marry, an increase in literacy rates, an increase in higher educational attainment and an increase in divorce rates between the census periods of 1981 and 1998 at the national level, as Mansoor Raza’s excellent article in Dawn contends. The fundamentalists could use divorce rates data to narrate a story of decline [reason 4] and ascribe a complex phenomenon like demographic change to a simplistic reason of deviation from the tenets of their version of Islam [reason 5].
Numbers can create political communities out of people who share some trait that has been counted [reason 6]. This is precisely why the Sindh government wanted Urdu-speaking and other migrant communities to describe themselves as “Sindhi” in the census so that a single Sindhi bloc could bargain from a position of strength with the federal administration.
Reason 7 is that counting can aid negotiation and compromise. This played out in the census story as follows: Karachi is no longer a predominantly Mohajir city; steady migration from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has caused this demographic change. Thus, census results would have forced Karachi’s traditional “Mohajir’ leadership to accommodate concerns of the Pashtuns and Sindhis in Karachi.
Finally, reason 8 is why the Pakistani government wanted to complete this nationwide exercise — to provide much-needed credibility to the civilian government.
Pakistan’s census troubles aren’t unique; they serve as a cautionary tale for India. Particularly because social tensions — religious, regional, and caste—have all risen in India. With the economy slowing down, many states are contemplating domicile based employment quotas. Whether OBCs should be counted as a separate category in the 2021 census is another issue that is gathering steam. In such a scenario, we expect that the 2021 census will be a politically fraught exercise.
By the end of the counting exercise, we hope, and we can only hope, that the new political communities formed will question the Indian State for better services rather than take up cudgels against each other.
Read the full edition here.
Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.