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India’s next census will be online: Home Minister Amit Shah

The provision of online enumeration also applies to the NPR exercise.

“The next census – which has been delayed because of COVID – will be an e-census,” Union Home Minister Amit Shah said at the inauguration of the Directorate of Census Operations building in Guwahati on May 10, according to The Indian Express.

Shah claimed that the census would be made “more scientific, accurate and multi-dimensional, with the help of modern techniques”. He also said that the government was currently developing a software bundle capable of pulling off such an operation on a nationwide scale.

Census is conducted under the provisions of the Census Act, 1948; this data is collected every ten years. So far, paper census involved government officials going to every house in the country and filling up forms, which were then sent to data processing centers for digitisation and analysis. The upcoming iteration of the exercise is expected to start in late 2022.

An online census was first mentioned by Shah in September 2020 and earlier this year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated a budget of Rs 3,786 crores for it. But Opposition MPs and activists have pointed to glaring privacy concerns in these proposals.

How is the e-census supposed to work?

The Home Minister has said that a thorough e-census data can not only reflect changes in demography and economic hotspots but also show areas left behind in the development parameters. Census data can also be used to infer cultural, linguistic, and societal changes in a region over a period.

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“A person’s name will be added to the census at birth. When they turn 18, the name will be included in the electoral roll and after death, the name will be deleted. We will link birth and death registers to the census. It means the census will be updated automatically after every birth and death in the country.” — Amit Shah

Apart from online self-enumeration, home visits by the enumerators for collecting census data will continue, the Home Minister said.

Shah also said that multiple agencies would be involved in the e-census. While he did not mention any agency by name, what are the chances that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and the Election Commission will be involved given that the 2022 Census Rules amendments also apply to the National Population Register (NPR) exercise?

Government made changes to the Census Rules in March

The central government notified the following amendments to the Census Rules, 1990 on March 13:

  • The Rules now include “electronic form” and “self-enumeration” in the schedule of questions to be asked during Census enumeration. An explanation accompanying the new rule says, “For the purposes of this clause, “electronic form‟ shall have the same meaning as assigned to it in Clause R of Sub-section 1 of Section 2 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (21 of 2000).”
  • Clause C of Rule 2, which deals with definitions, now reads, “Census Schedule means the schedule containing questions referred to in sub-section (1) of section 8 of the Act, in paper form or in an electronic form and can be canvassed in the said modes including through self-enumeration.”
  • Section 8 of the Census Act, 1948, gives powers to the enumerator to ask questions regarding the Census and makes it obligatory for respondents to answer, with certain exceptions.
  • There is also an extra clause in Rule 6 as 6D, which says, “Without prejudice to any other provisions of these rules, a person may fill up, complete and submit the census schedule through self-enumeration.”

Critics have noted that e-census may be used to implement NRC

Registered births and deaths are currently only recorded by state governments, but critics fear that this amendment is a step toward the creation of the highly-controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) and 360-degree profiling of Indian citizens.

“Using a database meant for births and deaths for the updation of unrelated and unconnected databases violates the principle against excessive collection” — Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi in a letter to the Registrar General of India

Previously, when the government had proposed centralising birth and death data, privacy rights activists pointed out that such data in the hands of the Centre would violate the principle of purpose limitation, which is the core of the right to privacy.

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