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One Billion and Counting

Last week Design Observer featured my article India’s Epic Head Count:

“More than 1 billion people of diverse cultures, languages and religions are united by India’s national borders. Between 2010 and 2011, the country’s census will not only count and categorize them by gender, religion and occupation, but also probe their access to technology, toilets and personal transport. In a monumental orchestration, aided by a newly designed census form, government departments, local councils and 2.5 million census collectors will continue the increasingly complex national effort to tally India’s inhabitants, which it has conducted every decade since the late 1800s.”

With challenges posed by linguistic variation and literacy levels, the census collectors play a vital role. Officially known as enumerators but unofficially as census-wallas, they record all responses on forms that are later collected, scanned and read via character recognition software. [continued…]

I first became intrigued by the process on reading of Deepa Krishnan’s census experience insights. I poked around a bit further and became fascinated by the scale and complexity involved. I also discovered that my former colleague Rupesh Vyas from India’s National Institute of Design developed the new forms and the article on Design Observer goes on to describe their efficiencies and user-centered orientation. But of course the difficulties faced by census enumerators are not all able to be solved by the form alone…

An official marks a house after collecting census details. From Reuters via the Irish Times

Willingness to be counted and questioned in detail has been varied, with the initial phase
requiring 35 questions to be answered. Some census collectors reported that it was easier to gather such details from the less well off. “In a slum, everyone is eager to be counted and they all want to make sure they are not left out if any card or official document is being distributed.” Meanwhile I was told by one friend in Mumbai that she was impressed by the peaceful and professional approach of her enumerators yet was surprised that her affluent neighbour refused to be questioned, citing the flimsy excuse that she was monitoring her son’s study for exams.

Some people have mentioned that they faced judgement or hesitation by enumerators over issues such as live-in romantic relationships and the retaining of maiden names by married women. While India may be changing, attitudes amongst form-fillers may pose barriers to accurate accounting of some developments – though it is expected that such misrepresent- ation would be well under 1%. Elsewhere, I wonder how things went with transgender citizens (hijras) who were granted specific status by the Electoral Commission last year but not by the National Registry who govern census collecting.

Enumerators nationwide have to noted a number of further challenges. In areas such as Himachal Pradesh “road connectivity remains poor and enumerators walk hours to reach scattered hamlets atop high mountains, close to the snowline.” Recollection of exact age is a common problem. Sometimes details get so confusing that censuswallas end up using their erasers more than their pencils. Irrelevant complaints may be loaded onto the enumerator who is seen as just as just another government bureaucrat – prompting the rehearsed reply
“I am here just to count people, not problems.” But my favourite would be the account from Assam where the census collector asked:

“I think I am around 65.”
“And your wife?…”
“She was about five years younger than me when we got married.
I think she is still five years younger to me.”

Image from India Struggles to Count It’s Millions, via Agence France-Presse.
Plus their video news report, of the same name, makes for interesting viewing.

Related posts:
India Gets Behind the Wheel on Urban Mobility
Painted National Pride

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