Issues Post COVID-19: Implementation of Census 2021 Possible?

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Census of India is a process of collecting, compiling, and analysing the data of all persons in a country. It may also be of a well-defined part of the country. The 2021 Census would be the 16th Indian Census, gaining its origin way back in 1881. The Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India conducts the Census. It is under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Also, the Census Act, 1948 acts as the guiding legislation on the same.

The primary aim of the Census is to get a headcount. It also facilitates the Government to evaluate the policies framed by them in past years. Furthermore, it helps the Government to allocate the representation to the Parliament. Also, it facilitates to analyse the growth of the population and make projections on the same. 

Census 2021 And Related Issues

Due to the current situation, it does not seem easy to implement Census 2021 as planned. The Census 2021 was scheduled to be conducted in two phases. Phase I deals with HouseListing and Housing Census during April-September, 2020. Phase II deal with Population Enumeration from February 9 to February 28, 2021. The updating of the National Population Register (NPR) is alongside Phase I of the Census. 

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The Census requires personal contact between the enumerator and thousands of people. The Government has no option but to postpone Phase I. 

Some parts of the country are under lockdown. Further, the Government is promoting Social Distancing. It does not seem feasible to expect the government officials to go door to door and collect data for months. Moreover, such a door to door survey would not be possible as people do not want to let outsiders enter their house. Many Health experts have predicted that the coronavirus is here to stay till 2021. There is no doubt that it will take months to restore the normalcy. Thus, it is very confident that the chances of commencing Phase I are very remote. 

Further Concerns

Another matter that one needs to consider is the accuracy of the data Census 2021 will present. It would be veracious to assume that this year is a “normal year”. An upcoming couple of years would also not fall under that category. One instance of the same would be the information on the Migrants.

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A person is a migrant if, on the date of enumeration, the person is at a place different from the place of birth. The share of Migrants in India’s population rose from 27.4% to 29.9% between 1991 and 2001. It further rose from 29.9% to 37.6% between 2001 and 2011. In such unusual circumstances, many migrant workers have gone back to their villages. This might give the wrong data about the migrant workers, thereby diverging from the trend. These figures facilitate new policies to prevent rural-urban migration by generating economic opportunities. 

Digital Census – A Possibility?

The obvious question that arises in this state is the conducting of “Digital Census”. How far is it possible to survey such huge characteristics digitally? The conducting of a “Digital Census” might not come as a surprise to the Government. In September 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah announced that Census 2021 would be one of its kind. He said that the ‘Pen-Paper Census’ will transform into a ‘Digital Census’ with Census 2021. They would use a mobile application for the first time, wherein the people would log in by generating an OTP. They would fill the details of their family members in the Census population form. 

We suffer from the general illiteracy amongst some sections of the society. In this scenario, digital literacy seems like a far-fetched dream. A wave to shift into a “Digital India” is on the lines for a few years. However, encouraging digital literacy amongst the under-privileged population has not met its target. Rural areas do not have any digital infrastructure and proper internet facilities. Expecting the rural population to avail such service does not seem practical. The Government will have to formulate a whole new alternative. This section has to be involved in Census 2021. 

Legal Viewpoint: Privacy Concerns And Confidentiality

The Census Act, 1948 guarantees confidentiality of the data provided during the exercise. It specifies a penalty for non-compliance or violation of any provision of the Act. Section 11 of the Act imposes a penalty on Census officials if such official, without the previous sanction of the Central Government or the State Government, discloses any information which he has received employing, or for, a census return. 

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However, the question arises is – Will the data be confidential if it is conducted digitally? In this era, since everything is being done online, privacy concerns are rampant. How can the Government ensure that such data will remain confidential? Even after it employs the best technology, there are still concerns.

Current Breach

The controversy around the Aarogya Setu application gives us a similar picture. This application lets the user know if they have been near a person with Covid-19. It does this by scanning a database of known cases of infection. It requires constant access to the phone’s Bluetooth and location. This makes it prone to privacy and security concerns. 

Anything done in a virtual format comes with the possibility of a privacy breach. In such a scenario, a traditional form of conducting the Census does not seem feasible. It will be interesting to see how the Government tackles privacy issues in digital mode.

The Law

The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 was introduced in the Parliament. Following this, there have been lots of controversies about Privacy law, in K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017), the Supreme court declared Right to Privacy as the Fundamental Right. Post this; a Committee was formulated to look into issues about data protection. The Bill mentions this. Thus, it regulates the collection, processing and storage of personal data of individuals. It is by both the Government and the companies in India. This Bill is not yet an Act. It is uncertain as to how it will determine the Government’s liability and accountability in Census 2021. 

Conclusion

The conducting of such a massive exercise will be a complicated task for the Government. The Central Government may go ahead with its plan to club the updating of the NPR with Phase I of the Census. It would be interesting to see the stance adopted by the State Governments in this case. Many states, ruled by the opposite parties, expressed their resistance. The Census will not be contentious, but NPR (which would later determine the citizenship rights) would create a complication. After the pandemic, the Government should come to a consensus with all the states. Everybody needs to be together to make the Indian Census 2021, a success.


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