India Census 2011 – A Story of Innovations

By Dr. C Chandramouli

The author is Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India.

New Delhi, Aug 16, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB India) Indian Census is the single largest source of a variety of statistical information on different characteristics of the people of India. It is the most credible source of information on demography, economic activity, literacy and education, housing & household amenities, urbanisation, fertility and mortality, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, language, religion, migration, disability and many other socio-cultural and demographic data.

With a history of more than 130 years, this reliable, time tested exercise has been bringing out a veritable wealth of statistics every 10 years, beginning from 1872 when the first census was conducted in India non-synchronously in different parts.

The recently concluded Census 2011 is the 15th National Census of the Country in the unbroken series since 1872 and the seventh after Independence. It is remarkable that the great historical tradition of conducting a Census has been maintained in spite of several adversities like wars, epidemics, natural calamities, political unrest etc. Very few countries in the world can boast of such a glorious tradition.

The responsibility of conducting the decennial Census rests with the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India (ORGI) under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, which includes conceptualization, planning and implementation of the Census operation in the country. The organization has field offices in all the States and Union Territories (except the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and the Union Territory of Daman and Diu, which are attached to the office at Gujarat). The field officers are headed by the Directors of Census Operations, who are responsible for the conduct of Census in their respective jurisdictions.


The Census of India is conducted once in a decade, following an extended de facto canvasser method. Under this approach, data is collected on every individual by visiting the household and canvassing a single questionnaire over a period of three weeks. The count is then updated to the reference date and time by conducting a Revision Round. In the Revision Round, any changes in the entries that arise on account of births, deaths and migration between the time of the enumerators visit and the reference date/time are noted down and the record updated.

Census 2011 has been conducted in two phases. In the first phase, known as Houselisting and Housing Census, each building, house and other structures were systematically listed and numbered. Besides, useful information on use of the house, amenities available to the households, if residential, and assets owned by them was collected. This exercise, held between April to September, 2010 in different States/Union territories was used to draw up a frame for the second phase of Census 2011, known as Population Enumeration held in February 2011.

In the second phase, the Population Enumeration exercise was held throughout the country from 9th to 28th February 2011. During this period, about 2.7 million Enumerators visited about 240 million households collecting information on every person living in these households. On the night of 28th February, 2011 the Houseless population was enumerated. Thereafter, a Revision Round was conducted to update the population with reference to the Census Moment, i.e., 00:00 hours of 1st March, 2011 by updating information on births and deaths occurring in the households.

Innovations Adopted

India had witnessed unparalleled change in terms of growth in population, economic development and adoption of new technology, particularly in the filed of Information Technology in comparison to the previous decades. This offered an opportunity to reassess each stage of census taking and modify the procedures taking into account the availability of resources and their optimum utilization. From planning to execution of the Census Operation, innovation was the key word. The objective was to ensure full coverage of the area and the population without omission or overlapping, collection of quality data without any prejudice and bias and to quickly process the data to make it available in the public domain for use before it becomes obsolete.

Following are some of the steps taken in this direction:

Complete and Unduplicated  Coverage of Population-While undertaking census operation, a key aspect is to ensure complete coverage of the geographic area of the country without any omission or duplication. This requires the updating of jurisdictional boundaries of all the administrative units from States to the Villages/Towns. Towards this end for use in Census 2011, information on changes in the jurisdiction of the administrative boundaries of 35 States/Union Territories, 640 districts, 5,924 sub-districts, 7,935 towns and 6,40,867 villages were meticulously collected along with official notifications and maps. Each of these changes was recorded in the digitized maps using latest GIS software. In addition, the Census Organization has completed preparation of detailed digital maps of 33 capital cities of the country based on satellite imagery. These maps show detailed layout of buildings, houses, other structures, road network and important landmarks and were used in Census 2011.

Quality of Content

Designing the Census Schedules- Two types of Questionnaire, known in Census as Schedules, are canvassed for the two phases of Census. In Census 2011, the work of designing the Schedules was entrusted to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad which came up with brilliant designs, which were easy to use, aesthetically developed, easy to scan and comparable to the best in the world. The Schedules had several unique features like Bar Code, Unique Form Number and drop-out color from a standard palette. All these helped in collecting quality information and better inventory management, a nightmare in the past. These features have greatly enhanced the processing of data.

Training-One of the most critical elements in Census is the training of the field Enumerators who collect information. Unless the 2.7 million functionaries are clear about the concepts and methodology, the quality of data collected will suffer. For the first time support of the NGOs was taken in imparting training in local languages. In Census 2011, a three-tier training hierarchy was put in place with National Trainers (90 in number) at the country level, Master Trainers Facilitators (725) at the State level and Master Trainers (54,000) at the District level. It was the responsibility of the Master Trainers to train 2.7 million Enumerators/ Supervisors at the grass-root level, a ratio of just 50 Enumerators per Master Trainer. The Instruction Manual was substantially improved by incorporating suitable illustrations and examples. In addition, Training Guides showing minute to minute agenda was prepared for use by the trainers at each stage of training. The Guide not only focused on elaborating concepts and methodology in Census but also covered such aspects as communication, rapport building etc. One important addition to the basket of training aids was the introduction of e-Learning modules on important census concepts, where animation characters representing Enumerators and Respondent(s) were shown actually delivering the dialogues and asking questions.

Publicity Campaign in Census 2011- For any large scale operations like Census Operations to succeed, undertaking adequate publicity campaign is an important element. Adequate sensitization of the people is a pre-requisite, as Census aims to collect personal information on each individual residing in the country at the time of Census. It is also important to focus on proper enumeration of such critical aspects as gender and disability in the population. In absence of adequate in-house expertise, the work of devising the entire campaign was assigned to reputed advertising agencies in the country with support from the UN Agencies. Elaborate campaign was planned and executed by using mass media, public outreach and digital media to achieve the objectives. The basic modules in Hindi were translated in 12 languages for use in different parts of the country. The media plan was prepared using the latest reports available on reach of media in different parts of the country using different modes on a scientific basis.

Census in School Programme- To sensitize school students about the Census 2011, an innovative programme was introduced throughout the country, where specially prepared and attractively designed School Kits were sent to about 60 to 80 schools in each of the 593 districts in the country. Each School Kit contained a letter from the Census Commissioner, India to the Principals of these schools requesting them to sensitize the students about the ensuing Census 2011 and also about the importance and utility of Census. Special attention was paid to the students of Class VI, VII and VIII for whom special lessons were sent on different subjects. The Census Commissioner, India also requested the Principals to designate one week in January 2011 as Census Week to develop awareness about Census 2011.

Gender Sensitization- Even though gender had been a prominent cross-cutting priority in 2001 Census, data related to female count, marital status, female headed households, female disability and female work-participation has continued to suffer from undercount or under-reporting. The 2001 census enumerated several villages/ districts that had reported very few women, very low female literacy and no female worker. To ensure collection of accurate information, an attempt was made to integrate gender issues into various stages of census taking by identifying gender critical districts, which had low sex ratio (less than 900); low female literacy (less than 30%) or low female work participation rate (less than 20%) on the basis of 2001 Census. In this way 262 Critical Districts were identified for focused attention and training. Special steps were taken to appoint additional Master Trainer Facilitators to sensitize the Enumerators on gender issues and train them in collecting authentic information. Special Data Sheets and Posters were prepared and displayed at each training class to sensitize the Enumerators on the poor status of women with reference to these three critical indicators. Extra effort was also made during the publicity campaign to sensitize the people to provide correct information about women and the girl child at the time of enumeration.

Using Social Networking Websites-With the overwhelming popularity of the social networking sites among the youth today, for the first time, in Census 2011, a conscious effort was made to reach them directly. Census 2011 Group was created on Facebook and Twitter in the first week of February 2011 and regular posts were made initially informing the visitors about different facets of Census in general and Census 2011 in particular inviting their support in spreading the message on Census. Within a short time, a large number of persons, mostly from the younger sections of the population, became members and actively posted views on the wall. The experience was quite satisfactory as most of the posts complimented the efforts while a few pointing out about not being covered in Census 2011. Immediate action was taken to redress their grievances. The site was also used for disseminating information on Census 2011 extensively. At present, there are more than 20,000 members on this Group. Similarly on Twitter as well, the members welcomed the new initiative.  The Census Commissioner, India was awarded Exceptional Achievement  for  innovative use of social media in the country’s biggest governance exercise.

Community Volunteers- This was a unique initiative in some North Eastern States where Civil Society Organisations joined hands with the Directorates to not only spread awareness but actually take part in the conduct of the Census. This has had a significant impact in these States and has greatly enhanced the participation of the general people in the Census.

Time bound completion of field operations and timely release of data.

Using State of the Art data recognition technology in data capture and data processing-  The Census Office has always been in the forefront in the adoption of the latest data processing technology in the processing of census data. At 2001 Census, for the first time, a major technology change in the vital activity of data extraction recorded on the Census Schedule and creating associated computer data files was introduced, so as to fully computerize the subsequent data processing activities in generating output tables for use. India was the only large country in the world to have used this technology in 2001 Census. In the new technology used, the Census Schedules were scanned using high speed duplex scanners and information read using ICR technology. When the Census Office adopted this technology in India, it was considered a risk by many as the technology had been used only by a few small countries and not tested for a large country. This innovation by the Indian Census not only saved time and money but allowed accurate capture of data as well. Another major benefit in adopting this technology was that it allowed the Census to tabulate the entire data on a 100% basis rather than on a sample basis as was the case till 1991 Census. Using the ICR technology not only saved time for data capture and data tabulation thus ultimately making it available to the users early, but also was very cost effective saving public money.

Despatch and delivery of Census material-In Census 2011, approximately 340 million Census Schedules, 6 million Instruction Manuals, and other printed materials in 18 languages were used. The despatch and delivery of these Census materials weighing about 2000 metric tons, printed in the right language(s) from about twenty printing presses located in different parts of the country and delivering them to about 17,000 locations in each tehsil in the country was a logistic nightmare. After the operations, the filled-in Schedules were to be collected and delivered to the 17 Data Scanning Centres and the 33 Census Offices. This job of collection, delivery and return collection was given to Indian Posts which used their Logistic Post Service to deliver the material in each tehsil in the country, safely and securely and in time. With their expert services, the India Posts were able to complete the work in  time satisfactorily.

Public Grievances and Monitoring-A Call Centre was set up to receive complaints from the public on various issues relating to Population Enumeration. Located in Pune, the facility was extended in 14 languages throughout the country. The complaints on non-coverage and other issues were quickly resolved with support from the local Census Offices. The Call Centers facility was also used to monitor the progress of enumeration work by directly contacting the Supervisions. At the conclusion of the Population Enumeration exercise, they have been assigned the job of Post Enumeration Survey (PES) in four metro cities.

Outsourcing of non-critical activities-Undertaking the Census Operation requires planning and execution of a wide array of activities, some demanding serious application of mind and some simply involving logistics and infrastructure. The scale of operations in all cases, however, was gigantic, due to the geographic spread and absence of adequate infrastructure in the country. It was decided at the planning stage itself to outsource non-critical activities in Census 2011 to allow Census Officials to focus more on Census related activities than managing logistics.

Adoption of Green Technology.

Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India supervised and monitored the progress of the Census Operations through video conferences with all the 640 District Collectors every week. The video conferencing technology saved huge amount of money which otherwise would have been necessary if the supervision team practically travelled to all the places or issued instructions through letters or correspondences.

Availing Call Centre facility to address public grievances during census helped in spreading green technology.


The cost of Census taking in such a large country as India is enormous. In Census 2011, about Rs 2200 crore was spent from the Central Budget during the two phases of Census, i.e., Houselisting and Housing Census held from April to September 2010 and the Population Enumeration held in February 2011. The amount spent was quite low as compared to the world average. According to the 25th Population Conference organized by the UN Statistical Division held in Seoul this year, the average cost of Census taking in the world is estimated as $ 4.6 per person. In India, the cost was less than $ 0.5 per person in Census 2011.

The heroines and heroes of Census 2011 have undoubtedly been the 2.7 million enumerators and supervisors who have spared no efforts to complete the arduous task in time.  Three weeks to cover a vast and diverse country like India – a task looked at with awe by the world, but accomplished by these humble women and men with sincerity and devotion to duty. The Nation is proud of them and we salute each one of them for their hard work, perseverance and patience.

- PIB Features


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