How do you count an estimated 1 billion people by hand? And more importantly, when there are some 7,000 recognized castes and 300 million deities being worshiped throughout the country, how do you know exactly who those people are? Muslim or Hindu? Eunuch or transsexual? Maharaja or beggar? Check the appropriate box on your form, please.
Welcome to Census India 2001. Late this month computers will spew out the first figures expected to confirm that India is well on its way to overtaking China as the world's most populous nation. Even before the numbers are in, everything about this count has been gigantic and controversial. The government dispatched some 2 million enumerators, or clerks, across the country to visit every village and household, incl-uding the makeshift dwell-ings of India's urban slums.
They found a populace unhappy not just with being tallied but grumbling over how they were counted. Prostitutes were outraged that they had been categorized as beggars, so too were jailed criminals, smugglers and the all-important makers of rotgut liquor. (Census officials say it's because their jobs contribute nothing to the national economy, not because their activities are illegal.) India's highly visible transsexuals, known as hijras, came close to burning their saris when census officials would give no quarter on gender and listed them as men. The country's estimated 30 million Christians charged that they were being marginalized because the poor and low-caste faithful could not claim "untouchable" status. And being a member of the "scheduled castes"-jargon for India's downtrodden-brings benefits, like privileged access to schools and a quota of government jobs. (Government officials at their most legalistic say Christians don't have castes.) The Parsis of Bombay, descendants of refugees from Iran and one of India's most influential business communities, were also incensed that their Zoroastrian religion was not listed on the census form. And in insurgency-plagued Kashmir to the northwest and Assam to the northeast the census provoked a new battle over language and religion. Kashmir didn't want its status as a Muslim majority state undermined. In Assam the native Assamese wanted to ensure their numbers were not overtaken by immigrants from Bangladesh and West Bengal. In both states census officials faced death threats from militants if they did their job and sus-pension by the government if they didn't.
On Feb. 28, the final night of the census, India's homeless were counted. In the narrow, crowded backstreets of old Delhi the enumerators spread out in pairs to wake up those asleep and take down the details of their lives. The man who ran an open-air "hostel"-some two dozen charpoys (woven twine and wooden beds) parked illegally on the pavement behind the city's great mosque-threatened the census clerks with a "good thrashing" if they didn't leave. "We find this all the time," one clerk sighed. "People think we are government spies. They still suspect us even when we tell them all the information is confidential."
Distrust of government officials perm-eates India. And any inadvertent act or omission is viewed with suspicion, even though
incompetence is often the culprit. When the census began on Feb. 9, President K.R. Narayanan was the first to step up. As a mem-ber of the scheduled castes, he is required to name the caste community he belongs to, which is based in the southern state of Kerala. It was not on the census list. Embarrassed officials suggested he skip that column. He refused. India's census commissioner Jayant Kumar Banthia says that separate scheduled caste lists are compiled for each state. This, however, does not take account of the movement of people from one part of the country to another.
Such complications aside, the commissioner says many questions experts would like answered aren't asked: everyone would lie about issues like salaries, housing costs and property values. Getting honest answers to basic questions is hard enough. "How old are you?" a census clerk asked a middle-class woman at the door of her apartment in Hyderabad, central India. "You have no right to ask me my age," she replied, "but I'll tell you nonetheless if you must know. I'm 29." The clerk checked his list: "That's the age we have for you at the last census in 1991." She looked at him coolly: "I am 29."
Despite the shortcomings, commissioner Banthia is confident that upon the census' completion, the world will get a clear snapshot of India. What no one knows is whether it will show a modernizing nation, a stagnating country or an India divided. Only one thing is certain: no matter how many people are counted this time around, by the next census in 2011 India will be even more crowded.
-With reporting by Subir Bhaumik/Guwahati and Yusuf Jameel/Jammu