Census in India – Everything You Need to Know

The 1st phase of Census 2021, along with National Population Register (NPR) updation, has been postponed indefinitely after the Prime Minister announced a 21-day lockdown due to COVID-19. These two exercises were to be conducted at the same time. This intention of conducting Census and NPR together by the government violates Census Act, 1948. The Census of India provides basic household and population listing based on anonymous data that is essential for the country’s statistical assessment on the population’s conditions and government policies. It is currently being mired by the new controversy on privacy violations by NPR. This jeopardises the credibility of census exercise, threatening the basic functioning of the governance and economy.

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What is the census?

  • The Indian Census is the largest collection of statistical information of the Indian citizens.
  • It has been undertaken every 10 years, beginning in 1872 under the regime of British Viceroy Lord Mayo.
  • The first complete census was undertaken in 1881.
  • After the independence, it has been conducted by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India under the Ministry of Home Affairs.
  • All censuses since 1951 were conducted under the Census Act, 1948.
  • The last census was held in 2011 and the next one will be held in 2021.
  • The census plays a critical role in helping to understand various facets of the nation by collecting statistics on society, demography, economy, anthropology, sociology etc.

How is the census conducted?

  • The primary tool of census operations is the questionnaire that is developed by taking into account the changing needs of the country.
  • It lists out questions that can help the government collect vital details required about citizens.
  • The name of the person, relationship to head, sex, date of birth and age, current marital status, religion, mother tongue, literacy status etc., are some of the questions that commonly exists in all census questionnaires.
  • This time, instead of forms, every individual must fill the required details on an app.
  • Self-declaration would suffice and there is no need for documents to verify it.
  • The census process involves door-to-door visits to each household, gathering particulars by asking questions.
  • The information collected from individuals would be kept confidential and is not accessible even to courts of law.
  • After the fieldwork, the collected data will be transferred to data processing centres located at 15 cities across India.
  • The data processing will be done by a software called Intelligent Character Recognition Software (ICR).
  • This technology, which was pioneered by India in Census 2001, has become the benchmark for censuses all across the globe.
  • This involves the scanning of census forms at high speed and extracting of data automatically using computer software.
  • This technology can process voluminous data in a very short period and can save huge amounts of manual labour and cost.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

What is the Census Act, 1948?

  • The Census Act, which was enacted in 1948, provides for a scheme of conducting population census with duties and responsibilities of all parties involved.
  • This Act empowers the Central Government to notify the date for the census and to appoint Census Commissioner and Superintendents of Census Operations in States.

Duties of citizens under the Act:

  • All individuals are legally bound to answer questions asked by the Census Officer to the best of their knowledge or belief.
  • Any individual who intentionally gives false answers to or refuses to answer to the best of his/her knowledge or belief, any question asked to him by a census officer will face a penalty.

Duties of census officers under the Act:

  • The census officers are responsible to discharge their duties faithfully.
  • The Act warns them against putting any question to a person, which is not covered by the questionnaire.
  • The officers are required to record answers given to them by the person.
  • A census officer may ask all such questions of all persons within the limits of the local area for which he/she is appointed by the government

Information secrecy

  • One of the crucial provisions of the Census Act, 1948 is that it mandates the maintenance of secrecy of the collected information from each individual.
  • The Act strictly requires the secrecy to be maintained regarding the individual’s record, which should not be used for any purpose other than census collection.
  • The Census records are not open for inspection and are not allowed as evidence in courts.

Can teachers’ services be used for census collection?

  • Section 27 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Primary Education Act, 2009 states that no teacher shall be deployed for any non-educational purpose other than the decennial population census, disaster relief duties or duties related to elections.
  • The Act overrides all existing judgements, whatsoever, on the subject matter of teacher appointment for performing Census related duties.
  • Thus, teachers can be used to collect nationwide census.

2021 Census of India:

  • The Census 2021 is scheduled to be conducted in two phases:
  • Phase I includes house listing and housing census
  • Phase II includes population enumeration
  • The National Population Register will also be updated along with Phase I of census 2021 in all states/UTs except Assam
  • The NPR exercise and Phase I of Census 2021 has been postponed indefinitely after the announcement of 21-day lockdown.

What are the changes made in the 2021 Census of India?

  • The Census 2021, the 16th Indian Census, will be conducted in 18 languages out of the 22 scheduled languages (under 8th schedule) and English. The Census 2011 was conducted in 16 languages.
  • The option of “other” under the gender category is going to be changed to “third gender”. In 2011 census, there were around 5 lakh people under the “other” category.
  • For the first time, the mobile app is going to be used to collect data.
  • The census data will be made available in the year 2024-25, which is quicker than the 2011 census.
  • Previously, the government had announced enumeration based on the list of OBCs notified by each state. Despite the announcement, the questionnaire presented in July 2019 did not have specific OBC category.

What are the challenges for the 2021 Census?

Highly expensive:

  • It is a massive exercise that involves high expense.
  • The cost of the 2021 Census is estimated at around 8,754 crores, involving around 30 lakh enumerators and field functionaries (usually government teachers and those appointed by state governments).
  • NPR will also be conducted alongside the 2021 Census at the cost of Rs.3,941 crore.

Hampering of data:

  • There are reports that data collection exercises like the National Sample Survey (NSS) are being hampered in states like Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.
  • There is a possibility of misreporting of information and there is no objective way to detect the misreporting, leaving only ad hoc methods of rooting out misreporting that may harm individuals.

Public fear and misinformation:

  • Many are not willing to cooperate with survey collection due to the fear of NPR, which breaks one of the critical rules of objective data collection – preservation of anonymity.
  • Anonymity is vital to ensure that the data is truthful, especially for data that can be used against specific individuals.
  • If respondents discover that the information in the NPR is more likely to result in questioning their citizenship, they may obscure or misreport.
  • Since the census is conducted alongside NPR and both are under the control of the Registrar General under the Ministry of Home Affairs, there is a threat to the credibility of information collected via the census.
  • There will be an adverse consequence if there is a loss in trust on census data, making it impossible to collect credible data.

High illiteracy rate:

  • The high proportion of illiteracy makes it difficult to collect credible data for the census.
  • This can lead to a high possibility of wrong information being collected during the census collection, leading to possibilities of inaccuracies.

Lack of adequate infrastructure in certain areas:

  • Poor infrastructure facilities like bad or inaccessible roads or insufficiency in connectivity and communication can hinder data collection from remote areas.

Belief system:

  • There are certain places where traditional beliefs play a huge role in policies, law and order.
  • In these places, if these beliefs are against certain government initiative, it is difficult to be implemented.
  • This remains a huge challenge for census also.

Shortage of census experts:

  • Another issue that hinders effective census collection is that there are very few professionals with knowledge and expertise in conducting a census.
  • There provides opportunities for error and inefficiency.

Inadequate and ineffective census educational campaign

  • Educational campaign on the census is undertaken before the census is initiated to spread awareness about the census and its importance.
  • The inefficiency of the campaign can result in limited accuracy in census data.

What are the questions that are going to be asked during the census 2021?

  • The census officers are directed to ask as many as 31 questions to collect information from every household during the house listing and housing census exercise.
  • The enumerators will seek the following details:
  • Information related to toilets, TV, internet, vehicles owned, telephone, laptop/computer
  • source of drinking water, cooking fuel and lighting
  • Wastewater outlet
  • Availability of bathing facility, kitchen and LPG/PNG connection
  • The enumerators will also seek details on census houses:
  • census house number
  • Predominant material of the floor, wall and roof of the census house
  • Condition of the census house
  • Total number of persons normally residing in the household
  • Total number of married couples living in the household
  • Number of dwelling rooms
  • Main cereal consumed in the census house
  • ownership status of the census house
  • The data pertaining to the head of the household is also collected. These include name, sex, caste (SC/ST/other) and mobile number.

How is census different from NPR?

  • The National Population Register (NPR), which was created in 2010, like the Census, is maintained by Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner of India.
  • The NPR aims to create a comprehensive identity database of every usual resident in the country.
  • The NPR is going to be conducted simultaneously with the house-listing phase of Census 2021, in all states and UTs except Assam.
  • Though conducted simultaneously, the NPR and the Census are different.
  • While NPR is a list of people published in the public domain, the Census is a document that helps formulate government policies.
  • The Census doesn’t involve the government putting out details of individuals into the public domain. However, it draws on larger trends, like the gender ratio of a particular district, child sex ratio etc.
  • The NPR, in contrast, is a register of individuals’ data that is accessible to the public.
  • While the Census covers the entire population, the NPR leaves out Assam.

How does the conducting of NPR and census exercises at the same time violate Census Act, 1948?

  • Both census and NPR, though different, are similar.
  • NPR collects basic details about a person, like a name, age, occupation, gender, place of birth, parents’ names and their place of birth, name of spouse if any, relationship to head of family, nationality, educational qualification, present and permanent address.
  • All these details are part of the census exercise, which is far more detailed and exhaustive.
  • Both the NPR and Census include foreigners staying in India. The NPR collects information of those foreigners who are staying for more than 6 months, the maximum time limit for a tourist visa. The census, on the other hand, takes into account even those who are staying for more than 21 days, taking into account foreign tourists within the population.
  • Both NPR and Census exercises do not require biometrics or other documents. Moreover, these biometric data are collected by the government for Aadhar and other similar purposes.
  • The main difference between NPR and census is that the data collected by the former is publicly available to enable the public to verify the information, while the latter’s data is confidential and inaccessible even to the government agencies and courts. If the data published under NPR is made public, it does not violate the confidentiality clause of the census.
  • This would enable the government to get the detailed information regarding individual citizens within the country, jeopardizing the privacy of the individuals.
  • At the present juncture, there is no clarity on the benefits from NPR and the exercise undertaken along with census violates clause 15 of the Census Act, 1948 that bars anyone from accessing any data collected by census officer and it being accessed as evidence by any civil proceedings other than for census purposes.
  • The delinking of the census and NPR will help to preserve the sanctity of the former.

Why the census is important?

Administration and policy:

  • The census provides the fundamental data that is necessary for effective administration.
  • It can be used for demarcation of constituencies and allocation of representation on governing bodies.
  • The legal and administrative status of a territorial division depends on the size of its population.
  • The social and cultural data collected via census is used to determine the total number of seats that needs to be reserved the SC/STs in the House of People and the Legislative Assemblies of the States
  • The census also provides information on the demographic and economic characteristics of the population at the district level, which is crucial in helping district-level administration.


  • The census provides vital data for scientific analysis and assessment of the composition, distribution and past and prospective growth of the population.
  • It gives information on urban-rural concentration, the development of an urbanised area, geographic distribution according to occupation and education, sex and age and social and economic characteristics of the population
  • This data plays an important role in research and understanding of practical problems of industrial and commercial growth and management.

Business and industry

  • The census data are also used by businesses and industries in their functioning.
  • Reliable estimates of consumer demand for a variety of goods and services depend on the information regarding the population size and distribution of age and sex since these aspects have a high influence on demand for housing, furnishing, clothing, medical supplies etc.
  • It is also used to understand the local availability of workforce for production and distribution of commodities.

The basis for sample surveys:

  • The census can provide basic data for evaluating the reasonableness of the overall survey results.
  • National Sample Survey is frequently using the list of census villages as the basis for several social and economic investigations in rural areas.
  • The Sample Registration Scheme of Registrar General’s office also utilises the list of census villages and blocks to frame for the registration of births and deaths.


  • The census data is used for social and economic planning in the country.
  • The government agencies use census data to analyse the growth of consumer demand and savings in the process of development.
  • The data is also used to study national income and differences in the personal incomes in rural and urban areas, consumption of urban and rural population etc.
  • This helps the governments and the private players to understand the manpower planning and the needs for policies on education, health, agriculture, food, connectivity etc.
  • In short, the census is fundamental for all types of planning.


It is evident that the census is vital for understanding and improving numerous aspects of administration and planning within a country. Thus, it is essential to maintain its authenticity by making people trust it through the preservation of its privacy.

Practice question for mains:

Critically examine the significance and challenges of the 2021 Census of India. How is NPR data collection violating Census Act, 1948? (250 words)

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