Read our COVID-19 research and news.

An enumerator collects data during India’s last national census, in 2011.

Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Unrest over citizenship policies could imperil India’s census

Next month, some 3 million enumerators will fan out across India in a once-a-decade ritual, gathering data for one of Asia’s oldest and most respected censuses. But this year could be different. Social scientists in India fear political unrest will disrupt the count, compromising critical demographic data for years to come. In particular, they worry that opposition to controversial new citizenship policies could cause many of India’s 1.3 billion people to refuse to participate in the census. And recent attacks on fieldworkers conducting other government surveys have raised concerns about the safety of India’s enumerators, who will begin work on 1 April. (The coronavirus outbreak might also disrupt the count.)

“This is a situation we’ve never faced,” says Pronab Sen, India’s former chief statistician. “We’ve always had cooperation in the census’ long history.”

India has conducted the tally since 1881. “There are very few countries in Asia with such a census,” says Perianayagam Arokiasamy, a specialist at the International Institute for Population Sciences. The data play a key role in political and economic decisions. They are used to draw legislative districts, apportion government spending, and inform investment decisions by businesses. Researchers use the data for studies and to design their own surveys. “There is really no other data for understanding the country’s demographics,” Arokiasamy says.

Three moves by India’s government, which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have heightened tensions around collecting population data. BJP leaders have vowed to create the National Register of Citizens, a list of people who can prove, through birth certificates or other ancestry records, that they qualify for citizenship. Last year, the party pushed through a law designed to fast-track citizenship for religious minorities fleeing from persecution in surrounding countries—but pointedly excluded Muslims, a minority group in India. In December 2019, the government also added sensitive new questions to a survey called the National Population Register (NPR), last conducted in 2010. The new NPR, to start in April, will ask respondents when and where their parents were born, for example; such information can be used to determine citizenship. Many observers believe the NPR is intended to help construct the register of citizens.

The moves have sparked protests across India, especially in Muslim communities, where many people fear they do not have the documents needed to prove citizenship, and so will become stateless. When officials in the border state of Assam created a register of citizens last year, some 1.9 million residents, including the family of a former president of India, could not prove citizenship; the state government has begun to build large detention camps, apparently to house noncitizens. In some regions, residents have attacked workers carrying out economic surveys or doing public health work, mistakenly believing they were collecting citizenship information.

Census watchers fear such problems could escalate when the census begins next month, in part because the government will conduct the more controversial NPR at the same time. “My worry is that … people will confuse the two [surveys] and refuse to give any information,” Sen says. Ten of India’s 22 states have passed resolutions opposing the NPR.

A faulty census would open a Pandora’s box, experts say. Resistance to enumeration could result in undercounts, especially in Muslim communities, leading to reduced funding. “I worry about the implications for the well-being of Muslim communities,” says sociologist Sonalde Desai of the University of Maryland, College Park, and a senior fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. “If they don’t cooperate with the census, the data for that community will be of poor quality, which could affect services.”

Flawed data could also reduce the reliability of other surveys that rely on the census. “Any subsequent survey or household data becomes contaminated,” Sen says. And efforts to fill in missing data by statistical tinkering could be technically and politically fraught. “We could do adjustments for undercounts, but how well can we do it?” Desai asks. “What would be the baseline data? Would the adjustments be a political issue?” (It might help, Desai says, if enumerators kept track of people who refuse to be counted.)

Concerns about the census come as experts are already questioning some of India’s other national data. Economists have raised questions about the government’s gross domestic product calculations, as well as decisions to suppress or discard surveys that reflect poorly on the economy. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation has set up a panel, chaired by Sen, to examine ways to improve the quality of economic data. “We’re still taking stock of data sets on the ground,” Sen says. “A lot depends on the census and the economic census.”

BJP leaders, meanwhile, have tried to calm protests by promising not to create the national registry of citizens any time soon. And last week, the home minister told Parliament that no one would be marked “D” for “doubtful citizen” in the upcoming population survey. But Sen and some 200 other experts say the government should consider postponing the NPR entirely. Time is running short: The first phase of the census, which identifies households, is set to end in September, and the second phase—which counts individuals—will begin early next year.