In May, the citizens who want to fill the much-delayed Census 2021 form themselves must first update their National Population Register details online.
However, between 2019 and 2020, a technical advisory committee had strongly advised the government keep the NPR out of the census. Members of the committee also said they hadn’t been subsequently consulted over these new developments.
The NPR is a register of the country’s “usual residents”. First compiled in 2010, it was later updated in 2015. It returned to the media eye because its data will be used for the BJP government’s National Register of Citizens.
The technical advisory committee was constituted to advise on issues like the methodology and questionnaires to conduct the Census 2021 – which carries this name even though it’s likely to in 2023-24. The members include former registrar generals and census commissioners, and current and former bureaucrats.
One of them told Newslaundry: “NPR has nothing to do with the census. By completing the population register through the census, the government is trying to adopt a short-cut method.”
Since the government has announced that only those respondents who will fill the NPR form will be able to self-enumerate for Census 2021, this hints at the possibility of linking the two datasets.
The TAC first met on January 30, 2019, then on September 30, 2019 and December 16, 2021. Three people who attended the meetings told Newslaundry said the government did not conduct any meetings since then, or apprise them of developments in Census 2021.
Newslaundry accessed the agenda notes of all three meetings, and the minutes of the second and third meetings.
The minutes of the meetings suggest the government has plans to “link” the two datasets. Three TAC members confirmed this to Newslaundry. All three of them described this as “fatal” for the census.
A scrutiny of the minutes indicate the TAC’s key argument against updating the NPR alongside the Census 2021 is that it will breach the privacy of census data. It was brought up at the second and third meetings.
The census is conducted under the Census Act of 1948 while the NPR is under the Citizenship Act of 1955. Section 15 of the Census Act says census records are not open to inspection or admissible in evidence – implying the data collected under this act cannot be shared with anyone.
On the other hand, the NPR is the first step towards creating the NCR. It is not confidential.
“We do not even publish the individual house-level or even village-level data,” said a member of the TAC, when contacted by Newslaundry, on census data. “Certain data – that too which is non-controversial like population, sex ratio, literacy rate – is shared up to the district-level only. This is to win the trust of the people. Trust is the biggest factor that must always be kept in view. It’s easy for the government to amend even the Census Act to give away the privacy of the people, but then they must know this will lead to the end of the census in India.”
In the TAC meeting held in 2021, Dr C Chandramouli said the legal requirements of the Citizenship Act and the Census Act must be considered before new developments are introduced in the methodology of data collection. Chandramouli was the registrar general and census commissioner of India from 2009 to 2016.
Chandramouli cited the Census 2011, where updating NPR was done during the first phase of the census exercise. Though it was “done during the same period”, he said, “the two exercises were separate and there was no linking between the two data sets. This should be ensured for the ensuing census also to avoid any legal issues later.”
A TAC participant told Newslaundry: “In the census, the correctness of the spelling of your name does not matter. But in NPR, it matters the most as it is all about an individual’s identity. So, if the spellings are different in both the datasets, how will the linking happen? It’s just fundamentally the wrong thing to do.”
They added, “Most states have also expressed concerns over not doing the census. The government has left the people with fear of the known and unknown.”
The same concerns had been expressed in the 2019 meeting too by two former registrar generals and census commissioners. According to the minutes, DK Sikri, who held the post from 2004 to 2009, “viewed to keep NPR out of the census. He further raised his doubt that can both HLO and updation of NPR be completed within 45 days.” HLO refers to house listing operations, part of the first phase of information collection for the census.
Jayant Kumar Banthia, who held the post from 1999 to 2004, raised concerns over the “legal provision of conducting census along with NPR, as the Census Act does not have provision to do any other data collection activity along with census”.
But on January 23, 2020, a notice issued by the office of the registrar general overlooked these suggestions. It announced that fieldwork in the first phase of Census 2021 would be conducted alongside updating the NPR over a 45-day period from April 2020 to September 2020. The exercise was postponed due to the Covid pandemic. It still hasn’t taken place.
Other members had also flagged these issues at the second meeting. All 19 TAC members advised the government to “check all legal aspects” to conduct NPR along with the first phase of the census.
Technical issues with ‘linking’ the two datasets
Apart from the lack of legal provisions to link the two datasets, a technical issue was brought up during the second meeting.
During a census, an area is divided into enumeration blocks with an address frame created for each household. During the two phases of the census, whenever an enumerator visits a house, information is updated on the same address frame. This maintains consistency and makes the data compilation easy. Fresh enumeration blocks are carved out before the first phase.
But the NPR is an updation exercise, where information collected is added to an old address frame.
So, according to the minutes of the meeting, TAC members pointed out that linking the two datasets wouldn’t provide consistent data. Chandramouli “expressed his apprehension on maintaining consistency between the information collected through two different applications”. He also “suggested that census and NPR data should be consistent at the field level itself”.
In both the second and third meeting, the office of the registrar general did not address these concerns.
“We do not know what decision they have taken about linking NPR with the census,” said a member “As TAC participants, it was our duty to advise them not to do so. But in the end, it is up to them.”
Newslaundry sent a questionnaire to Mritunjay Kumar Narayan, the registrar general and census commissioner of India. This report will be updated if we receive a response.
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