Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

POPULATION-INDIA: Accuracy Questioned as Census Nears End

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Feb 26 2001 (IPS) - When census officials visited India’s first family to start the nation’s once-in-10-years population count early February, they were embarrassed to find they could not record a vital social fact about President K.R. Narayanan.

Narayanan belongs to one of Hindu-majority India’s lower most social castes, officially known as Scheduled Castes (SCs). Yet, the census form did not include his particular caste in the list of communities categorised as SC.

Census authorities later explained that the ‘Paravan’ caste to which the president belongs, is recognised only in his home southern coastal Kerala state and not the national capital where he resides.

For over half a century, these socially marginalised groups have been entitled to constitutionally guaranteed quotas in educational institutions, government jobs and legislative bodies.

Organisations representing SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs) — indigenous groups entitled to the same constitutional guarantees — complained that this would lead to a gross under-estimation of SCs and STs, who make up more than one-tenth of Indians.

“The president’s example has created a very real apprehension that thousands of people may not be able to register their correct caste status just because they happen to be living in a state that does not recognise their community as a Scheduled Caste,” admitted a census official.

Starting Feb. 9, more than two million specially trained census enumerators have been knocking on doors across the country in what is said to be the largest such exercise in the world.

When the census ends Feb. 28, enumerators will have visited some 20 million households in more than half a million villages and 5,500 towns and cities.

The national population, which hit the one billion mark last year, is projected to be 1.01 billion, according to census authorities.

Officials say the census will yield a much more accurate social and economic picture of India. This will help national planners and decision-makers make better policy and schemes to raise living standards in the low-income South Asian nation.

However, critics question this claim and point to lapses like the one in the case of the president.

“After 130 years of conducting this (census) exercise, such lapses raise uncomfortable questions about our attitude towards the institution of caste, an institution that is central to the Indic way of life,” said the leading national daily, ‘Indian Express’ in an editorial.

Some have even accused the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads India’s ruling coalition, of using the census for political purposes.

Brindavan Moses, president of the All-India Christian People’s Forum, alleges a “deliberate and sinister move to distort the demographic profile of dalits in the country.”

Dalit, which translates as socially oppressed, refers to not just the SCs and STs, but a large number of Indians who do not fall in these categories.

Moses and other Christian leaders have reiterated their demand that the census must not discriminate between dalits on the basis of religion.

A socially marginalised person must be either a Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist to claim SC benefits.

“This implies that a Scheduled Caste person cannot profess or practise any other religion like Christianity or Islam or even be an agnostic or atheist,” says Moses.

“Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Indian Constitution as a fundamental right and this inalienable right is unjustifiably taken from millions of dalits across the country through this enumeration exercise,” he adds.

However, Bimla Jindgar, a senior census official in the Indian capital defends the religion-based classification of SCs: “Caste exist only within the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions.”

But Christian leaders do not agree. “The punishment of caste transcends religion,” says John Dayal, the vocal secretary general of the influential All-India Christian Council.

“Ideally, a person should be given the freedom to chose his religion, but since the census operation is already under way, we are prepared for Scheduled Caste people not being asked their religion at all,” Dayal said.

The influential national daily, ‘The Hindu’ backed the Christian leaders.

“After all, the very same considerations that weighed in favour of allowing Sikhs and Buddhists to register their caste (SC or ST) should have led to a similar decision in relation to the Christian community,” it said.

“The fact remains that Christians in India are Indian Christians and, as a result of the intermingling among local communities, have necessarily come to acquire the characteristics peculiar to this society,” it added.

Pointing out that religious conversion was not enough to do away with “centuries of institutionalised discrimination”, the newspaper said there was no reason to deny Christian dalits, the benefits guaranteed to SCs and STs.

The census also came under fire from a section of women’s groups who accused the exercise of being insensitive to women’s rights.

Pramila Pandhe of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association, said she found it strange that commercial sex workers were being classified as beggars and that unwed mothers could not get their children recorded in the census form.

“So many mothers are single nowadays,” says Ranjana Kumari, another well-known women’s rights activist, whose Centre for Social Research runs gender training courses.

Kumari thinks the government is trying to project the idea that “we are a safe society and our values are not decaying and our traditions and social institutions are not breaking up.”

However, Veena Nayyar of the Women’s Political Watch said the number of women who had children, but were not married, was negligible in India and need not figure at all in the census operation. “I don’t see this category at all,” she said.

India has been conducting census operations every 10 years, since the year 1872. The last census found nearly about 850 million people in the country.

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