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EDITORIAL ANALYSIS : Census as a mirror of past and present       


Source: The Hindu

  • Prelims: Census, Total Fertility Rate (TFR), National Register of Citizens (NRC) etc
  • Mains GS Paper I and II: Government policies and interventions for development of various sectors and issues arising out of them etc



  • Study of India’s experience under colonial rule by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel concludes that data from the Census of India reveal that between 1880 and 1920 approximately 100 million Indians died due to British policy in India.




  • The census provides information on size, distribution and socio-economic, demographic and other characteristics of the country’s population.
  • The Census was first started under British Viceroy Lord Mayo in 1872.
  • It helped in framing new policies, government programs to uplift areas of improvement in the community.
  • The first synchronous census in India was held in 1881.
  • Every ten years: Since then, censuses have been undertaken uninterruptedly once every ten years.

Who conducts the census?

  • The responsibility of conducting the decennial Census rests with the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.

The Census is one of the most credible sources of information on the following:

  • Economic Activity.
  • Literacy and Education.
  • Housing & Household Amenities.
  • Urbanization, Fertility, and Mortality.
  • Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 

Census in India:

  • India’s first Census was held in 1872, conducted non-synchronously in different parts of the country.
  • After that, India has held its decadal censuses regularly from 1881 to 2011.


Method used by Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel:

  • To calculate the excess mortality: The difference between the actual deaths and the deaths that may be expected on the basis of some benchmark.
  • They used Census data for actual deaths
  • They used two alternative benchmarks: the mortality rate for India in 1880 and that for England in the 16th and 17th centuries.


Analysis of their studies:

  • The resulting estimates for excess deaths during 1880-1920 are 50 million in the first case and 160 million in the second one, respectively.
  • Death from famine: They point out that the figure is greater than the death from famine in “the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Mengistu’s Ethiopia”.


Issues with their studies:

  • The age-wise population distribution in the census has been used to estimate the mortality rate
    • Sullivan and Hickel use this to draw conclusions about the evolution of economic conditions in colonial India.
  • The mortality rate itself is the result of estimation and not enumeration.
    • Registration of births and deaths became established practice in India only much later on.
  • The mortality rate in British India is seen to rise steadily after 1881: recording an increase of close to 20% by 1921.
    • It is unusual for the mortality rate of a country to rise continuously due to natural causes.
  • Sullivan-Hickel study vindicates Dadabhai Naoroji’s claim of the economic drain of India under British rule.

British arguments used for the empire:

  • English forms of land tenure
  • English language
  • Banking
  • The common law
  • Protestantism
  • Team sports
  • The limited state
  • Representative assemblies
  • Idea of liberty

Issues with the British arguments for empire:

  • There is no mention of:
    • Famines which started almost at the onset of rule by the East India Company in Bengal
    • De-industrialisation of India in the nineteenth century
    • The drain of wealth
    • worsening food security
    • India’s peasants were forced to grow commercial crops for export so that Britain could balance its trade. 

Importance of Census:

  • Counting: It carries the promise of counting each and every Indian.
  • Connecting state to individual: A census is when the state connects to every individual and it will find it hard to hide or duck from the data.
  • Findings: Finding out age, gender, economic status, religion and languages spoken yields information of another order
  • Planning and resolving problems: It is a treasure trove of findings and providing pathways for planning and resolving problems, and fixing deficiencies.
  • Before Big Data: Well before the term Big Data became commonplace — have provided great amounts of reliable numbers over time.
  • Important metrics: such as the sharp decline in the gender ratio(between the Censuses of 1961 and 1971) alerted Indians to how pre and post-natal factors were reflecting the ‘son bias’ and leading people to murder girls, born and unborn.
  • Preventing bigotry and prejudice: Considering the data-free assertion that India is heading for a population explosion due to Muslim reproductive rates. 

Way Forward

  • The decline in the mortality rate signals improved living conditions.
    • The Census shows that in the 1950s, life expectancy at birth of Indians increased by more than it did in the previous seventy years.
  • Census can be a double-edged sword in the hands of nationalists: The population numbers recorded after 1947 indicate that life of Indians improved since the end of colonial rule in dimensions other than merely income.
  • The Census of India shows that we have not attained that level in our recorded history, except in pockets within the country.
  • Life expectancy: After declining for four decades from 1951 it started inching up in 1991.
    • But in 2011, it was still lower than what it was in 1951.
    • So, even though life expectancy increased soon after Independence, in the early years, it increased faster for men than it did for women.
  • India’s Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam at the G-20: implying that the nations of the world are a family
    • It behooves us to ensure that all the persons in our own family enjoy the same freedoms.
  • Repository of complete data: The census is vital and precious as it is a repository of complete data about the country which is gathered openly, voluntarily, and with the use of public money, making it a social good
  • Desire to connect: Fundamentally, it is a way in which the state, by knocking at all doors, displays its desire to connect with the people who ultimately comprise the nation.



Q. Discuss the main objectives of Population Education and point out the measures to achieve them in India in detail.(UPSC 2021) (200 WORDS, 10 MARKS)