Sunday, Aug 14, 2022

Census Ordeal

Suddenly, she turned towards me and asked what our caste was. But when we said that was not required Lakshmi came up with an ingenious explanation...

The most crucial phase of our decennial census process, of visiting households and collecting data, is nearly over. In states like Karnataka it just got over. In the Northeastern states like Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur it will shortly be over. Except for Jharkhand, where the process begins on 15 June and ends on 30 July, we can assume that we have completed the most defining exercise of our democracy. It is perhaps time that we shout 'hurrahs' for the foot-soldiers, the unsung enumerators, who made it possible by expending their physical energies. The innocuous-looking numbers they have brought from the nooks and corners of our vast and diverse country, when crunched and presented, will help formulate our social and economic agenda for the next decade.

The census alone, with a population of billion plus people, possesses an altruistic sanctity. No other information that we routinely collect carries this credibility. As a newly-arrived nation of data-peddlers, we collect all kinds of information for a variety of purposes. From selling lemonade and lingerie to predicting election trends, we have become psychologically dependent on surveys. So much so that it has now become a game and a pastime. A little fixing and fudging is welcome. Not so with the process of collecting the census data. You may not always be accurate, but the motive is never suspect. Collecting census data is an unstated ordeal of selflessness and sacrifice.  

Portraying the lady who collected data in our locality in Bangalore would clarify my assertion. She is a petite symbol of an army of over two million enumerators across the country. 

She was a middle aged lady who walked in with a younger person after making sure there was no dog in the compound. She waited at the door until she was asked in. Let us call her Lakshmi, to give the story some life and blood, while in reality I don't really know what her name is. Lakshmi sat down and asked for a glass of water, she had walked around in the summer sun and looked exhausted. The younger lady did not waste time; she started shooting questions. As we passed on information, we tried to make conversation and casually asked if they went around in pairs to quicken the job. That's when we learnt that they were not colleagues but a mother-daughter pair. The daughter was getting into her tenth class. "Since this involves a lot of writing work I brought her along," Lakshmi said. She perhaps felt it made an incomplete explanation and so added: "My fingers are cramped. My wrist is paining. I have been writing a lot during the last couple of weeks. They set a daily target and we have finish those many households," she said. "This is the third time we are coming to your house. We are through with all the houses in this street. I think you people go out to work and are not available on working days. That's the reason we chose a Sunday," she continued. She asked for more water at this point; we offered them butter-milk. There was some trust built up and she made a request: "Please do not reveal that I brought my daughter along."

In the meanwhile, the daughter had started filling up the form. When my wife gave out her name, she asked if she was indeed a Kannadiga. That, we thought, was a euphemistic way of trying to extract our marital story. Then, suddenly, she turned towards me and asked what our caste was. But when we said that was not required Lakshmi came up with an ingenious explanation: "That's true, but it is a little delicate to directly ask if you belong to the SC or ST community. Upper caste people really get offended. The person in the third house from here flared up the other day. It is difficult to make out one's caste in a city," she said. But nevertheless they stick on to it, we thought.

When the process of seeking data was through in a few minutes, she asked if they had disturbed us on a Sunday and if we had had our lunch. We said we felt guilty that she had to step out in the hot sun on a Sunday just to catch us at home. Lakshmi opened up further: "At least you have treated us well, but in most houses we are made to stand at the door and are shouted at for no reason. In some houses they don't even tie up the dog and I am damn scared of it. All this is quite an ordeal. I am a single mother and have locked up my younger daughter at home." We wanted to check if we had heard it right: "Locked up"? She nodded: "She has summer holidays and there is no place for me to leave her behind. My brothers stay close by, but we are estranged. My mother lives with my sister in our village. So we have no other option. My younger one is in her seventh class and it is not safe to leave her with our neighbours," she said. "What does your daughter do alone at home?" We got curious. "She watches television and if she gets bored she sleeps. I cook before I leave. She heats it up and eats in the noon. We carry our lunch boxes."

This little conversation had so much in its womb. Here was a woman who was collecting information from us, but we ended up learning more about her. We had come to have an insight about not just her social conditions, but her neighbours as well. Plus of course, we had a clearer idea of our own neighbourhood and ourselves.

Besides the physical ordeal, the complexity of the enumerator's job is revealed in the questions that they have been shooting back to their superior officers. Here's a sample of their frequently asked queries from across India:

  1. Mobile phones have FM radio. Will it be considered as radio?
  2. Two households use the same car. How should we record it?
  3. Many households staying at Mumbai may not know Marathi. They may insist to record the information in English so that they can read, check and then sign. Shall we write everything in Marathi or as requested by the respondent?
  4. When a husband is having three wives, how do we enter all the spouses?
  5. If a normal member of the household is absent during the entire period of 45 days, will she/he be listed in this household?
  6. In Maharashtra, villages with same name exist in different tehsils of the same district. Without the tehsil name, it will not be possible to distinguish between them. Should we write the tehsil name also in the address?
  7. A married girl stays at her parents place as 'gauna' has not been performed. What will her permanent address be?
  8. In the above cases, advance mobile phones have facilities similar to TV, laptop, etc. Will these facilities also be considered for recording possession in questions 29 and 30?
  9. A household has prepared a soak pit outside the house and the waste water goes there. The pit is sometimes covered, sometimes uncovered. What will be the code?
  10. Some households in villages construct latrines to a nearby plot outside their home due to space constraint or other reasons. How to code these toilets?
  11. The neo-Buddhists are also considered as SC by the State Govt. Shall they be considered as SC in this column?
  12. When a couple are living together will they be considered as married?