Double Check: Can outdated Indian census figures lead to misinformation?

By: anurag baruah&
April 28 2023

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Double Check: Can outdated Indian census figures lead to misinformation?

Source: REUTERS/Utpal Baruah

Since its start in 1872, India has never missed it. World wars, mass famines, and even a partition could not affect its regularity. India's decennial census is a tradition, an exercise that continued unabated all these years. But India's latest census scheduled for 2021 remains undone - and the lack of updated data is impacting a range of issues. But does it also contribute to the spread of misinformation.

India conducted its last census in February 2011, assessing the country's total population at nearly 1,2109 billion, with 940 females for every 1,000 males. The overall literacy rate was 74 percent. 

This year, India’s population is expected to surpass China’s, making it the most populous country in the world at 1,4286 billion, against China’s 1,4257 billion - 2.9 million fewer, according to the United Nations "State of World Population Report."

With a 12-year-old census, online users are dismissing the U.N.'s assessment as part of a larger conspiracy, criticizing individuals using this report to highlight the issues that come with large population numbers, or spreading false narratives targeting minorities and immigrants. 


Screenshot of tweet saying "India can get back to become number 2 in population growth if -All the illegal Bangladeshi, Rohingyas, Paxtanis and missionaries are immedietaly deported."

Source: Twitter/DollyS2023

Screenshot of tweet saying, "There are 8 lacs villages r there in India. How come UN can do survey of 8 lacs villages? UN is spreading lies about India population."

Source: Twitter/eskant2


Screenshot of tweet saying," @narendramodi ensured that Hindus life become miserable while not acting against illegal Bangaldeshi or Rohingya Muslims."

              Source: Twitter/RemeshHind


The census is conducted in two phases: houselisting and population enumeration, where the first phase includes identifying all buildings and households, and gathering information about the housing conditions, following which each person and their details are collected based on a fixed set of questions in the second phase.

The two phases of the 2021 Census were scheduled to be conducted from April to September 2020 and in February 2021. 

But with the onset of the first wave of COVID-19 in India in early 2020, a national lockdown was announced on March 24 that year. The next day, the Minister of Home Affairs announced the census would be pushed until further orders. Since then, the exercise has been postponed multiple times, and according to the latest reports, is delayed further. COVID-19 is repeatedly cited as the reason for the extension. 

Since conducting both phases takes at least 11 months, and with India's general elections scheduled for March-April 2024, it is unlikely that the next census will be conducted until then.

How does census data help

Census data is a mine of information on various topics ranging from economics, literacy, mortality, fertility, religion, migration, and others. It helps devise government programs and schemes and measure their success. Researchers use census data to analyze growth trends and make credible projections. Census data is also used to demarcate constituencies and allocate representations in parliament, state assemblies, and local bodies. The budget and financial allocations are also made based on census data. 

With the data having such significance, former Acting Chairman of the National Statistical Commission (NSC) PC Mohanan told Logically Facts the absence of it "appears to be intentional." 

Mohanan and his colleague resigned in 2019 when the center had reportedly delayed the publication of its labor force survey for 2017-2018, which showed unemployment was at a 45-year high of 6.1 percent following Modi's controversial implementation of demonetization. 

"Delay in the population census would mean that the policies and debates are based on information that may not be valid now. This is a refusal to seek the latest facts. In the absence of current data, one can make claims and statements whose veracity is difficult to question or verify," Mohanan told Logically Facts. 

Dr. Nandita Saikia, a professor at the International Institute for Population Sciences, told Logically Facts that the updation of the census is crucial as it is the basis of all the plans and programs of the government, and postponing it has both immediate and long-term negative impact on the country. 

"The biggest challenge demographers, planners, and other stakeholders are now facing is estimating the district population. Since the district is the basic administrative unit for governing, planning, and executing government projects, the problem is quite serious," Saikia said. 

The professor said, "many districts of India are experiencing a faster demographic transition with varying fertility and mortality rates. So using the growth rate of 2001-2011 for the period after 2021 becomes more of an assumption-based model than a model that reflects empirical reality."

Lack of data enables stoking fear, perpetuating stereotypes 

"Misinformation happens due to (i) no updated census data being available or (ii) even when some projections are available, we are compelled to use the past census data," K Narayanan Unni, who was the Deputy Registrar General at the Indian Statistical Service and a member of the Advisory Committee for census 2011 and 2021, told Logically. 

He also said that the lower budget allocation for the census in 2023-24 indicates that the delay could go up to four years or even more. "It is well known that population growth rates vary across social categorizations like religion. There is not enough information on the current growth rates after 2011 for various social categories. There is a possibility that the relative growth rates across communities have changed. If the growth rates of some minority communities have fallen significantly, then using old data will be misleading the readers."

Unni cited an example from Kerala in which he believes updated population data could help bust narratives claiming the state will become Muslim-majority in the future. 

"Notwithstanding that the population of Hindus was higher, corresponding to Muslims, Kerala registered more births among Muslims than Hindus in the last few years. As the state has neither published nor provided raw data, one has to wait for the results of the next census to understand the situation better," he said. 

Till then, the trend is interpreted as evidence of the state becoming Muslim majority - a common right-wing rhetoric used as a political tool. Kerala's only Muslim-majority district was called "mini-Pakistan" by Home Minister Amit Shah in 2019, and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan issued a statement in response to right-wing outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) claim of religious imbalance saying it was "not based on facts or figures."

On October 5, 2022, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said India should have a population control law "equally applicable to all." Bhagwat cited East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan as examples of "new countries that emerged because of religious community-based imbalance."

Sakshi Maharaj, the national ruling party's former member of parliament from Unnao in 2017 said, "those with four wives and 40 children are responsible for the population increase in the country. Hindus are not to blame for the increase in population."

Multiple experts have calculated that the claim "Muslim population will surpass the Hindu population in India" is false. Devendra Kothari, former chairperson of the national committee to review the family welfare program, cited scientific evidence to conclude that the Muslim population growth rate will come down and the Hindu population growth rate will show a slight increase in the next census.

The Pew Research Center concluded that the percentage of Muslims in India will be around 18.4 percent, whereas the Hindu population will be approximately 76.7 percent by 2050. 

On June 28, 2022, when a tailor from a religious community was murdered in Udaipur, Rajasthan, by two men from another community over a social media post, various incendiary narratives went viral. 

Logically Facts debunked one such Twitter post that misleadingly claimed, "Udaipur's Muslim population has grown from 3.5 percent in 2011 to 15.67 percent in 2021." The Twitter post included two purported screenshots citing incorrect population and demography data.

New Census data can go a long way in giving the right information, including on minorities, Mohanan says. "The lack of interest in conducting the next census is unfortunate as it creates an impression that we are not serious about gathering the right facts at the right time," he told Logically Facts.

Updated census 2021 data will be helpful in debunking and pre-bunking a lot of misinformation concerning population figures from a religious perspective. 

More than 100 million excluded from government schemes

Unni noted that administrators in the country are forced to use 2011 census data instead of projected population data, which could have compensated for the non-availability of a new census. It has impacted the food security of millions of Indians.

"Administrators are compelled to use 2011 census data, though they could have used the projected population, impacting the effectiveness of the National Food Security Act. The law says that the number of people to be covered should be based on the previous census," he added. 

In 2020, economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera concluded that more than 100 million people were excluded from the government's food security program, the Public Distribution System (PDS), because of older census numbers. The PDS distributes food and non-food items to the poor at subsidized rates, providing subsidized grains to approximately two-thirds of the Indian population. 

"Any sensible policy should have an in-built mechanism for updating coverage annually to account for population increase. Between the last census in 2011 and today, population increase has not been accounted for in determining the number of ration cards (used to avail PDS services)," Khera wrote in an opinion piece in the Hindu.

She wrote that despite the apparent solution - endorsed by the Supreme Court - suggesting increasing coverage based on population projections, the government chose to cite rules mandating coverage based on the latest census. 

A case of disappearing toilets

According to a Down To Earth report on a document titled 'In Deep Shit,' the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation had claimed that 53.09 percent of India's rural homes had toilets by December 2010. But the 2011 census later revealed that households without toilets were 22.03 percent less than the sanitation ministry figure. Over 67 percent of rural homes do not have access to toilets, according to the 2011 census. 

"The ministry used the population growth over the years to justify the conflicting and alarming figures," the document said. This case of disappearing toilets highlights how census data is crucial to arrive at correct conclusions regarding the result of government schemes and benefits. 

"Governments and politicians tend to negate or hide any data that is not to their liking. Already, some of the data on various indicators are being criticized, saying that they are based on small samples. Census would not have that deficiency," Unni said.

What lies ahead

In March 2022, the census rules were amended to allow a person to complete and submit their own census data via a mobile application. It will "reduce the overall time taken to process the census data and to publish the results in time," according to the user manual for the census 2021 mobile application.

But Unni told India Spend that "allowing households to self-enumerate is a new initiative, but I am not sure how successful it would be in terms of data quality and completeness of coverage." 

Apart from coverage concerns, the repeated delays expected to last till next year's general elections have raised alarms on the completion of crucial studies involving economic, health, and social indicators that rely on census data. While a state like Bihar has taken matters into its own hands by conducting a caste census, it's a temporary measure. 

"There is no alternative to a credible national survey like the census, which undertakes complete enumeration of everyone in the country," development economist KP Kannan told the BBC.


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