New India’s Policies from Old India’s Data: The 16th Census Delay and its Impact

Author: Yashoroop Dey

The year 2023 has been a milestone year for India, with the country assuming the G20 presidency for the first time while also being projected to become the most populous country in the world. However, in 2023, India also enters its third year of a delayed population census. The 16th Indian Census, originally conducted in 2021, may be postponed to the second half of 2024 for a fourth time. The Covid-19 pandemic was cited as the reason for the delay by the government. 
It is of note that since the first Indian census of 1881, no other census has broken the decennial pattern until 2021. Even during wars or national disasters affecting census timeliness, as seen in 1941 due to the Second World War, the delays remained within the year, and the census was completed in the year it was planned for.
Furthermore, since the Covid waves of past years, especially the deadly second wave of early 2021, almost all of the pandemic limitations have been withdrawn. Even during the second wave, the government proceeded to hold assembly elections in 4 major states of Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Assam. All the elections involved extensive campaigning by major parties and high voter turnouts. The state of West Bengal requested the Election Commission, unsuccessfully, to conclude the last three phases of an eight-phase election due to the alarming number of Covid cases. 
The census is a crucial exercise. It provides important data on the national population, such as its trends in literacy, employment, poverty, and sociocultural distribution, among other factors critical to policymaking. The absence of an updated census for the last decade coerced major policy decisions to rely on the old 2011 census data, using only projections to reflect the changes in national trends since then. One of the predominant impacts of the delay is on the social welfare schemes of the country upon which the socio-economically vulnerable populations depend for their nutrition and well-being.