Monday, August 31, 2015

When damn lies, damn truths are both damn right. The games we can play with census figures

As everyone knows, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Mark Twain did not specifically mention census because census is statistics. Ten people interpret census figures in ten different ways, all of them being damn lies and damn truths at the same time. That's the beauty of census statistics: We an use them to suit our purpose.

The 2011 Religious Communities Census testifies to this beauty. The Congress-led government did not release it, for political reasons. The BJP-led government has now released it, for political reasons. The Congress's reason was to ensure Muslim votes. The BJP's reason was to ensure Hindutva votes. The same 2011 census has a caste-wise set of statistics as well. This has not been released by the present government -- of course for political reasons, whatever they are.

This must be a special Indian thing. Because only in India has democracy developed along religious and caste lines. Patels in Gujarat, Yadavs in Bihar-UP, Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu, Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka, Dalits and anti-Dalits everywhere -- that is the road map our democracy follows.

To see how Indian this is, we must look at how other democracies use census figures. In the US, politicians will no doubt make use of the information that, for example, the Asian population has fallen in a district or increased in another. But essentially census information provide the basis for policy making -- which areas need new roads, where new schools and libraries must be located, where new hospitals and daycare centres must be built. It's also on the basis of census figures that they decide the size of police stations and fire departments.

Perhaps our politicians are also studying census findings to make policy decisions -- how many in a highrise building in Mumbai's Bandra area are vegetarian, how many in Bhendi Bazaar are Sunnis, essential information to chalk out action plans. Even simple things like giving a flat on rent depends upon such critical information.

The religion-wise details brought out by the newly released census report lend themselves to political use in our very religious country. A typical newspaper headline said: 'Muslim population grew faster: Census'. (The headline was correct. But so was the headline in another newspaper: 'Muslim population growth slows'). The general impression was that Muslim population in India was increasing while other religious groupings were dwindling in numbers. Naturally, non-Muslims -- and not just the Hindutva hardliners -- would feel uncomfortable. Their inclination would be to support measures meant to keep Muslims in check. Gain for BJP.

But this will be a short-sighted, wholly political way of looking at the census. In terms of the country's overall progress, two factors need to be taken into account. First, only during 1981-91 did Muslim growth rate rise. During 1971-81, it was constant. During 1991-2001, it declined by 0.4 percentage points, when Hindu growth rate declined by 0.3 percentage points. In absolute terms India now has 966.3 million Hindus, 79.8 percent of the total population, the first time the Hindu percentage has fallen below 80. This is something to be welcomed because it points to social and economic progress among Hindus.

That is the second factor to be considered while evaluating the census. Population growth/decline is directly linked to the improvement in a community's socio-economic parameters. Better education and better access to healthcare have made a difference to Muslim population statistics -- including child mortality and women's health -- in southern India, Kerala being often cited as a model. Muslims in Kerala stand well above their fellow-religionists in the north in education and general wellbeing. If Muslims are the only community in the country to show growth in its share of the total population, it is a pointer to the large-scale poverty, illiteracy and backwardness that prevail among them. This should worry the leaders of the community. But instead they seem to look upon poor and untutored followers as safe bets who will not question the leadership's actions.

According to sociologists, Muslim growth rate dipped in 2001-2011 because of the impact of primary education. The obvious course an enlightened government should follow is to ensure the spread of education among Muslims, especially among Muslim girls. Their own leaders, religious as well as political, are the main stumbling blocks to Muslim progress. Their obstructionism should be fought and the cooperation of enlightened Muslims enlisted to end the economic and educational inequalities that hold the community back. Simply turning anti-Muslim won't help because 172.2 million Muslims cannot be wished away.