HUM HINDUSTANI: Do they count? —J Sri Raman - Friday, March 11, 2011

Source :\03\11\story_11-3-2011_pg3_5

The census this time is supposed to collect more detailed data than before on another disadvantaged section — the disabled. The last census conducted in 2001 put the country’s disabled population at 2.13 percent. The current enumeration may give us a closer estimate

“They kept flashing a torch at my face. I realised that the sooner I get it over with the quicker I can go back to sleep,” so said a pavement-dweller of Mumbai, talking to a newspaper reporter of a visit to his wayside ‘home’ from census enumerators. He is one of the about 175,000 people without a roof over their heads in India’s financial capital.

“Count me. I have never been counted.” That is what a transvestite, with only a public sleeping place for immovable property, told a reporter from a New Delhi daily, apparently mistaking him for an enumerator as he asked questions about the census. She is one of the approximately 140,000 shelterless citizens of the country’s capital.

The street-smart Mumbaiwalla may sound more cynical than the street-dweller of Delhi in this case. Both the metropolises (as well as the other two, Chennai and Kolkata), however, have many, many people without a postal address eager for an encounter with the enumerators in the hope that it will help get them ration cards.

It is a false hope, of course. But can we entertain the faint one that it will help the world’s second most populous country count the hitherto uncounted? And will the bait-lured statistics spell for them, if not ration cards, more real benefits than a place in the planned National Register of Population?

The head-count of the homeless is proceeding as part of the Census of India 2011 (expected to be completed this month). The ambitious undertaking aims to cover the about 1.2 billion Indians (spread over four metropolises, 7,742 towns and over 600,000 villages) at a cost of over Indian Rs 22 billion or $ 1.3 billion. The poor (including those with humble abodes) may not talk of a cost-benefit analysis, but cannot be blamed for wondering what is in it for them.

Generally speaking, they come into the reckoning only at election time. Their votes count for the simple reason that they cast the bulk of the about 714 million ballots. The non-voting elite, of course, blames their electoral preference for all national problems, big and small. The rest of us have reason to thank them. But for them, for example, the slogan of Shining India, by which its authors could have meant only a minuscule section of millionaires, would have succeeded in the parliamentary polls of 2004. That would have given the country a government to preside over more Gujarats and more ‘great-power’ gizmos.

The dainty elite see a major deficiency of the country’s democratic process in the disproportionate role for the people, though this is put in a very different way in their editorials and other edicts. The real flaw of the system lies in the fact that the poor, including the pavement populace, ceases to count between the elections.

This, however, was of very little relevance to an election-related controversy raised over the census. The demand for inclusion of a section on caste in the census prompted heated discussions in parliament and elsewhere. Originating from the camp of intermediate-caste politics, mainly Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP), the demand received vociferous support from others including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that once brooked no idea of caste divisions in its majoritarian constituency. The idea of collecting information on caste, however, has not proved too controversial, as no one denies the existence of downtrodden castes and the need to empower them.

The census this time is supposed to collect more detailed data than before on another disadvantaged section — the disabled. The last census conducted in 2001 put the country’s disabled population at 2.13 percent. The estimate was hotly contested. Pioneering disability rights activist Javed Abidi — who has raised demands ranging from disabled-friendly ramps in government buildings to statutory recognition of sign language as one of India’s languages — put the figure at 7 percent. The current enumeration may give us a closer estimate.

But it remains to be seen how much more reliable the findings can turn out this time than before. Disability, for instance, is widely seen as a disgrace to be concealed or denied. Enumerators find people more forthcoming about the disabled in others’ families. Claims about caste, too, lack total credibility as the information is linked to reservation and other benefits. Less than truthful answers must be expected, too, where law is involved, as in the case of child marriages.

The instruction manual for the enumerators says: “Before starting the work, meet prominent persons of the area and explain to them the objective of (the) census and your purpose of visit and seek their cooperation.” In villages where kangaroo courts of “elders” condemn couples to death for marrying within “gotras” (sub-castes or clans), for example, the rule may not obtain reliable information.

A major aim of the census, it is said, is to ensure that relief and other governmental aid reaches the poor (instead of ending in the middlemen’s pockets). Must the big-investment undertaking, more importantly, not help in planning to lift people light-years away from the Forbes list of Indian billionaires, out of a seemingly permanent state of poverty?

The enumerators find that they cannot enter easily the “gated” communities of the extra-rich, guarded by special security systems. Residents of this rarefied world do not want to be counted. The very common people will be only too willing to be counted, if the exercise will make them count eventually in the country’s life.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

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