Census is Political

Any counting exercise is political. Counting persons in a particular jurisdiction is even more so. A few months ago, I had written how census is a politically charged issue in Pakistan.

Unsurprisingly, this is the case in India as well. A few days back, I needed state-wise population projections for the years 2012-2019 and I came across a few inferences to illustrate how even though the census is conducted regularly in India, the politics of counting manifests itself in some other ways.

One, there are no official population projections data after 2006. The last population projection exercise was carried out by a Technical Group constituted by the National Commission of Population in 2006 based on Census 2001 data. Even eight years after the last census, the updated population projections have not been released. The National Commission of Population itself seems to have become defunct – their website returns a 404 error and there have been no recent press releases from the Commission. The politics of counting might have a role to play in this inexplicable delay.

In any case, based on the Census 2011 data, I have a state-wise population projection dataset which is available on ResearchGate if anyone wants to use it.

Two, Nagaland’s decadal growth rate stands out. While compiling a simplified population projections estimate, I noticed Nagaland is the only state that shows declining population between 2001 and 2011. Turns out this is so because Census 2001 overestimated population numbers. Notably, Nagaland had recorded the country’s highest decadal population growth rate in the 2001 and 1991 census. A news report claims this as the reason:

Rejecting the 2001 Census, the State government on various occasions found that most of the villages recorded exaggerated population figures believing that they would get more financial allocations from the government for various rural development schemes.


I don’t think this reason alone sufficiently explains the overestimation because reporting exaggerated figures is not unique to Nagaland alone. Instead, what this indicates is weak state capacity in Nagaland. I had written earlier that census taking is as fundamental an indicator of state capacity as raising taxes is, and can be used to measure effectiveness of States. Nagaland has particularly seen violent bouts of insurgency and hence it is quite likely that census officials weren’t able to conduct the exercise with rigour. They instead extrapolated based on numbers reported by village officials.

Three, migration into Assam problem is more an unresolved historical issue than a problem that’s getting worse by the day. It’s a stock problem rather than a flow problem. I say this because Assam’s decadal growth rate between 2001 and 2011 is actually below the national average. This was not the case earlier. See this table:

Source: http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/96723/9/09_chapter%204.pdf

In the 100 years between 1901 and 2001, there was were only two decades in which Assam’s population growth rate was slower than the India average. But this has not been the case since the 1991 census. Illegal migration from Bangladesh is considered to be a big driver for population changes in Assam and the latest census data tentatively suggests that the flow of new migrants has been arrested. Another alternative explanation is that the lowered decadal growth rate was a result of political negotiations that tried to downplay the extent of the problem. I am inclined towards the first explanation because Bangladesh is making rapid strides in its own growth story and this will disincentivise high-risk illegal migration to Assam.

From Chapter 8, Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone

These three instances again assert how any counting is political. I’ll leave you with this excellent nugget from Deborah Stone’s classic The Policy Paradox.