Counting and Controlling Population

Postal Services, Census & Family Planning in Post-colonial India, 1951 – 2011

Poster Jan27

One of the first challenges facing most newly independent states was to make themselves statistically legible to their own citizens as well as the world. India enacted a law to govern headcounts, the Census Act, 1948, two years before the adoption of its constitution in 1950

Later, the constitution made human population census a sine qua non of power and resource sharing at all levels. The nascent post-colonial state, though, valued the census for another reason as well. The ability to successfully execute a large-scale modern’ and scientific’ administrative exercise that involved extensive use of technology’ was integral to India’s self-imagination as a modern democracy. 

But creating awareness about this crucial exercise was a challenging task in early post-colonial India with low literacy rates and limited means of communication. The government relied on postal networks to advertise the census. When population control emerged as a key policy goal in the mid-1960s, postal networks began to be simultaneously used to ask people how many they were as well as tell them how many they ought to be.

This exhibition throws light on the use of postal networks between 1951 and 2011 to spread the word about census, registration of births and deaths and population control. It puts together a novel philatelic archive to uncover the conceptual as well as linguistic and graphic shifts in the use of postal networks that reflect the changing approach of the government vis-à-vis population. In doing so, the exhibition presents philatelic archives as a valuable source of information about the post-colonial state and its statistical practices in India.

The exhibition will be inaugurated on Friday, January 27th, at 6 pm by C Rangarajan, former RBI governor. This will be followed by Vikas Kumar’s curatorial comments and Q&A with the audience.

About the Speakers:

Vikas Kumar currently teaches economics at Azim Premji University. He is co-author of Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and author of Numbers as Political Allies: The Census in Jammu and Kashmir (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) and Waiting for a Christmas Gift: Essays on Politics, Elections and Media in Nagaland (Heritage Publishing House, forthcoming). 

He curated the exhibition Baba Saheb: An Extraordinary Philatelic Journey (19662022) at the India International Centre, New Delhi (June 2022) and the Bangalore International Centre, Bengaluru (July 2022) and India’s First Prime Minister: A Philatelic Picture at Azim Premji University (November 2022).

C. Rangarajan: After three decades in academia, Dr. C. Rangarajan joined the RBI as a deputy governor (198291). Later, he served as Member, Planning Commission (199192), Governor, RBI (199297), Governor, Andhra Pradesh (19972003), Chairman, Twelfth Finance Commission (200304), Member, Rajya Sabha (200809), and Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (200508 & 2009 – 14). 

A Padma Vibhushan awardee (2002), he was part of the team that initiated far-reaching reforms in India’s economy in the early 1990s. He was the chairman of the National Statistical Commission (200001), which was constituted to review India’s statistical system.

Mohan Rao, formerly a professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health (CSMCH), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, is a medical doctor specialised in public health. He has written extensively on the history and politics of health and family planning. He is the author of From Population Control To Reproductive Health: Malthusian Arithmetic (Sage India, 2004).