Positive signals

Print edition : May 06, 2011

Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner of India Dr C. Chandramauli releasing the provisional results of Census 2011 - PTI

The first results of Census 2011 put India's population at 1,210 million, indicating a demographic transition.

CENSUS 2011 is the 15th one undertaken in India since 1872 and the seventh after the country attained Independence. While there have been stray historical references to population counts of one kind or another in earlier periods over much smaller territories within the territory that constitutes present-day India, the consensus view is that the first systematic, though non-synchronous, population census conducted throughout the country was between 1865 and 1872. The first synchronous census was done in 1881. Since then, decennial censuses have been conducted without fail.

It is interesting to learn that the censuses from 1881 up to, and including, 1931 were conducted using a synchronous de facto method, meaning that the census was conducted throughout the country on a single night. This was given up from the 1941 census. The method followed from 1941 onwards is described as an extended de facto canvasser method. Specifically, we are informed by the Census of India:

In Census 2011, the canvassing of the questionnaire was done from 9th of February 2011 to 28th of February 2011. A Revision Round was then conducted from 1st to 5th of March 2011 and the count updated to the Reference Moment of 00:00 hours on the 1st of March 2011.

The census for a country of India's size and territory is, of course, a complex exercise. Census 2011 involved coverage of a human population spread over 35 States/Union Territories, 640 districts, 5,924 sub-district administrative units, 7,936 towns and 6.41 lakh villages. The cost of Census 2011 has been estimated at Rs.22,000 million, which works out to a per person cost of Rs.18.19. A total of 2.7 million functionaries worked in the conduct of the census. The census schedules were canvassed in 16 languages. A total of 340 million schedules were printed. In all, 5.4 million training manuals were printed. The total number of languages in which the training manuals were printed was 18.

In an elaborate Introductory Note', which forms part of Paper No.1 of 2011 Census, the Registrar-General of India and the Census Commissioner, Dr C. Chandramouli, has set out in detail the processes and procedures underlying the census exercise. He has also summarised the important changes in the schedules canvassed in 2011 from those of 2001. He makes the point that a unique feature of Census 2011 was the innovative use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Before going into the details of population growth and other demographic data from the first results of Census 2011, it needs to be noted that the data released are provisional and there will be some revision after all the schedules are scanned and the necessary checks and cross-checks are carried out. However, the revisions are likely to be minor. The results provide a good basis for a preliminary understanding.

THE PERCENTAGE DECADAL growth rates of population have declined in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Fertility rates have come down across the country, and several States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab have reached replacement levels of fertility.-

The provisional population figure for India as per Census 2011 stands at 1,210.2 million, consisting of 623.7 million males and 586.5 million females. This constitutes a growth of 17.64 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Compared with the decennial population growth rates of 23.87 per cent between 1981 and 1991 and 21.54 per cent between 1991 and 2001, this is a significant reduction in population growth rate. In fact, the absolute increase in population between 2001 and 2011, at 181.5 million, is less than the increase of 182.3 million between 1991 and 2001. This makes the decade of 2001-11 the first one in independent India to witness a reduction in both absolute and relative population growth. The number of children in the 0-6 age group has declined between 2001 and 2011 from 163.84 million to 158.79 million. This portends a lower population growth rate in the years to come. A demographic transition is well under way in India, though there are significant differences across States, a matter to which we shall return.

While the population growth rate has slackened significantly between 2001 and 2011 as compared to earlier inter-census periods, it is true that we are still adding massive numbers to the country's population. For instance, the addition to the population at 181.5 million is only slightly less than the entire population of Brazil, which is the fifth most populous country in the world! Similarly, the population of India at 1,210.2 million in 2011 is almost equal to the combined population of the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Japan at 1,214.3 million. Nevertheless, the fact that the percentage decadal growth rates of population have declined between 2001 and 2011 in the six most populous States of the country Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh is a pointer to the continuance of the trend towards population stabilisation over the next five decades. Fertility rates have come down across the country, and several States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab have reached replacement levels of fertility. Kerala will, in fact, have to contend with the problem of an ageing population even while several other States will continue to experience a rising share of population in the working age groups. The problem of ageing populations and rising ratios of dependants to earners will also become a feature of some other States, which are moving rapidly through a process of demographic transition to low birth rates and low death rates.

Sex Composition

Over most of the 20th century, the sex ratio in India declined from 972 females per 1,000 males in 1901 to 927 by 1991. It then rose to 933 in 2001. The good news is that it has since risen to 940 as per the provisional figures of Census 2011. In 29 States and Union Territories, the overall sex ratio has risen between 2001 and 2011. However, it has declined in Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat and Bihar. Kerala continues to be the State with the highest sex ratio, at 1084.

How does India's population sex ratio compare with some other major countries? The global sex ratio was 984 in 2011. Among the 10 most populous countries, only China has a lower sex ratio than India, at 926. Bangladesh, Nigeria and Indonesia, with sex ratios of 978, 987 and 988 respectively, are the populous developing countries with a sex ratio much higher than that of India. Even Pakistan has a sex ratio of 943, marginally higher than that of India. The U.S., the Russian Federation, Brazil and Japan have sex ratios well in excess of 1,000. Among India's neighbours, only China, Bhutan (897) and Afghanistan (931) have sex ratios lower than 940. Sex ratios vary significantly across the States. Taking into account the major States with a population exceeding 20 million each in 2011, the sex ratio varies from a high of 1084 in Kerala to a low of 877 in Haryana. Other major States with a low sex ratio include Punjab (893), Uttar Pradesh (908), Bihar (916), Gujarat (918), Maharashtra (925) and Rajasthan (926). The southern States of Kerala (1084), Tamil Nadu (995), Andhra Pradesh (992) and Karnataka (968) fare much better.

Child Sex Ratio

The population sex ratio as an indicator of the well-being of women in a society has a major limitation. When there is sex-selective migration where males emigrate from a region in search of employment or for other reasons but women do so if at all to a much lesser extent, one can get a high sex ratio, but this would not indicate female well-being. Thus, in many of India's more economically backward districts in the countryside, males may migrate in search of employment, resulting in high sex ratios for these districts, reflecting poverty rather than female well-being. A better measure of relative female well-being or of relative female survival disadvantage is the sex ratio in the age group of 0 to 6, known as the child sex ratio (CSR). The 2011 census figures for CSR are disturbing. The CSR in India has been falling rapidly for several decades now. It declined from 976 in 1961 to 927 by 2001. It has further fallen to 914 in 2011. The situation in several large northern States is nothing short of alarming. While the CSR in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat have risen from 798 to 846, 819 to 830 and 883 to 886 respectively, these ratios are still low by any standard. Worse still, the CSR has dropped in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh from 916 to 899, 909 to 883, 908 to 883 and 932 to 912 respectively. In 2001, 26 per cent of India's population lived in States with a CSR of 915 or less. In 2011, this proportion has risen to nearly 53 per cent. Only six States and two Union Territories report an increase in the CSR. In all the other cases, the CSR has fallen, in several of them at an alarming rate. This is yet another reminder of the gender-unequal nature of the development processes in India.

Literacy Rates

While the population of India grew by 17.54 per cent between 2001 and 2011, the number of literates in the 7 and above age group grew by 38.82 per cent, with the result that the ratio of literates to the population in the 7 and above age group improved from 64.83 per cent in 2001 to 74.04 per cent in 2011. The number of literate females in this age group grew by 49.10 per cent between 2001 and 2011, while that of males increased by a more modest 31.98 per cent. As a result, the female literacy rate in the seven-plus population increased from 53.67 per cent to 65.46 per cent, while the male literacy rate rose from 75.26 per cent to 82.14 per cent. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of non-literates in India has come down by nearly 3.12 crore, with the number of non-literate females declining by 1.71 crore and that of non-literate males by 1.41 crore.

One major State, Kerala, and nine Union Territories, all with relatively modest population sizes, have literacy rates higher than 85 per cent, the target set by the Planning Commission for 2011-12. This target has not been met in most other parts of the country, and is unlikely to be met by 2011-12. While the gap between male and female literacy rates has declined from 21.59 percentage points in 2001 to 16.68 percentage points in 2011, this is still considerably more than the 11th Plan target of 10 percentage points by 2011-12. Except for Kerala, none of the major States has achieved the target of bridging the gap between male and female literacy rates to less than 10 percentage points. Kerala had achieved this much earlier. It is encouraging, however, that the male-female gap in literacy rates, which has been declining since 1981, has shown a sharper decline between 2001 and 2011. At the same time, the fact that more than a third of females aged seven years or more are non-literate even by the minimalist measure from Census 2011 is indeed a scandal for a country nursing ambitions of becoming a global power.

While there are considerable differences in literacy rates across States, with Kerala at 93.91 per cent and Bihar at 63.82 per cent, it is also true that inter-State differences have narrowed a bit, with the poorer performers in 2001 showing a more rapid increase in the past decade in literacy rates than their more advanced counterparts. For instance, while the number of literates aged seven years and above has grown by nearly 39 per cent for the country as a whole, it has grown by 74.8 per cent in Bihar, 59.2 per cent in Jharkhand and 56.4 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. In terms of overall literacy rates, Kerala is far ahead with 93.91 per cent. It is followed at some distance by Maharashtra (82.91 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (80.33 per cent). Gujarat (79.31) and West Bengal (77.08) follow these two States closely, and three other major States Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka have literacy rates above 75 per cent. Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Bihar, in that order, bring up the rear with literacy rates below 70 per cent. The position with respect to female literacy rates again has Kerala way ahead at 91.98 per cent, followed at quite some distance by Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Gujarat, in that order.

It is interesting that the Left-led States of Kerala and West Bengal figure in the top five major States in respect of literacy, as do, of course, the high-profile States of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

It is important that the literacy rates as calculated from the provisional numbers of Census 2011 do not give rise to complacency. That would be completely unwarranted for several reasons. First, data from a large number of village surveys, such as those carried out by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies recently across several States, typically show the census literacy rate figures to be much higher than the percentage of the population that reports itself as being able to read and write, when asked a nuanced set of questions distinguishing between the ability to read, the ability to write and the ability to do both. Second, literacy rates differ considerably between rural and urban areas, and one must await the release of tables on literacy rates by rural/urban residence. Third, literacy rates differ significantly across social groups, with the Scheduled Tribes and the Scheduled Castes much more poorly off in this regard. Fourth, we have already noted that more than a third of the female population aged seven years or more is non-literate after more than two decades of high gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates, a sad commentary on the degree of inclusiveness in our growth model. Finally, as long as access to good-quality schooling remains scarce for the majority of the people, the reported literacy figures will overstate hugely the extent of non-fragile, effective literacy.

It is too early to celebrate the results of Census 2011. The initial results, in fact, remind us, in the midst of some progress, of huge gender inequalities and persisting levels of mass educational deprivation across different regions after a decade of high GDP growth rates.

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