CENSUS work starts three years before the actual enumeration on the ground. What kind of data is to be collected is discussed by data users comprising officials from the government, social scientists, demographers and so on.
Census 2001 made a departure from the earlier practice in that it collected data on housing with a view to indicating the quality of life. "The emphasis was not only on where people live but how people live," Banthia told Frontline. Therefore, data on amenities were collected. Two million enumerators were employed, trained for the Census operations. "We conducted Census operations in Assam and Jammu and Kashmir, which were excluded in 1981 and 1991 respectively. We are a neutral body. We state things as they are," says Banthia. The Census office plans to release data on age, fertility, migration, languages, educational levels and marital status in the coming months.
Recalling some of the difficulties the enumerators faced, Banthia narrates an experience in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where an endangered community of the Sentinelise resides. Only 42 members of this unique tribe are left and due to their lack of exposure to the mainstream population, they are supposed to have a very delicate constitution. "We can even infect them by sheer proximity. We floated coconuts and bananas in the water which brought them near and then with the help of binoculars, we were able to count and videograph them," he says.
Today, people in the Census office are disappointed that all their hard work is being politicised. In the 1971, 1981 and 1991 Censuses, the governments did not allow cross-classification. A.R. Nanda, the Census Commissioner in 1991, feels that the Census office should not be blamed for this. Nanda, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Family Welfare and now the executive director of Population Foundation of India, says that everyone was warned not to jump to conclusions. "The Census can only flag off issues. It cannot do anything about restrictive interpretations," says Nanda. He lauds Banthia for initiating a strong campaign on the Civil Registration System. "He is ideally suited for the job. He has done it all in good faith and been more open in releasing the data. There are no motives here," he adds.
Narayan Banerjee, director of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, and who has been associated with the Census in the past, says that the novelty of the current data on religion lies in the cross-classification. "This type of classification never existed. There used to be only absolute figures earlier," he says. Terming the politicisation of the issue as unfortunate, Banerjee wonders why the political parties had not picked up the issue of the declining sex ratio - a feature brought out by the Census office.