Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Exploring the Census - an Indian Odyssey

Throughout the enormous geographical extent of British colonies, as well as the raw goods and finished products on which the Empire’s prosperity was based constantly being exchanged, information was a major commodity. Unlike most of the physical items, this information is still available to researchers, and is a resource not only for historians, but for those interested in an extraordinarily wide range of subjects.

A common perception is that the Population Census is simply a head count of the people of the country. It is much more than that. Censuses collect reliable data on essential characteristics, such as, population, economy activity, social and cultural aspects, migration and demography and present them at the lowest administrative level. Census data demonstrates where the nation is positioned at a particular point in respect of various social and economic characteristics in the world. The ten yearly census data is very useful for planning for the future, as well as for reflecting on trends and change from the past.

The first Indian national census was contemplated in the mid 1850's but had a number of precedents, The earliest literature 'Rig-Veda' reveals that some kind of population count was maintained in the period 800-600 BC in India. The celebrated 'Arthashastr' by 'Kautilya' written in the 3rd Century BC prescribed the collection of population statistics as a measure of state policy for taxation. During the regime of the Mughal king Akbar, the administrative report 'Ain-e-Akbari' included comprehensive data pertaining to population, industry, wealth and many other characteristics.

A systematic and modern population census was conducted non synchronously between 1865 and 1872 in different parts of the country. This effort, building on methods used in previous colonial tabulations, culminated in 1872 and has been popularly labelled as the first population census of India. The first synchronous census in India was held in 1881. Since then, censuses have been undertaken uninterruptedly once every ten year.

There are problems in inherent in the collection of census data and statistics – these include both operational or logistical factors, including omissions and undercounting, and conceptual issues. For the Indian census historically there has been some degree of subjectivity in relation to how villages and towns and how families have been defined. One other issue that has been the subject of scholarly debate revolves around the way in which caste was conceptualised by the Indian census and the impact of this. Caste was included in censuses until 1931, and its use related to British theories of race. The introduction of a notion of social precedence has been claimed by some scholars to have had a significant role in the production of modern caste identities in India.
The Census of India 2001 was the fourteenth census in the continuous series and the sixth since independence. The gigantic task of census taking was completed in two phases. In the first phase, the House -listing Operation, all building and structures, residential, partly residential or non- residential were identified and listed and the uses to which they were put recorded. Information on houses, household amenities and assets were also collected. In the second phase, the Population Enumeration, more detailed information on each individual residing in the country, Indian national or otherwise, during the enumeration period was collected. At the Census 2001, more than 2 million (or 20 lakh) enumerators were deployed to collect the information by visiting every household. The Indian Census is one of the largest administrative exercises undertaken in the world.

The modern census is notable for the large number of publications produced and the range of depth of information that it contains. Assistance from library staff is available for students and researchers at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library.

As well as print holdings of census reports and tables electronic sopies are also available. The official Indian Government Census website  contains data from the latest 2001 census, and also old census reports and tables, from 1881, 1911, 1921, 1931, and 1941.

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