The Limitations of India’s Census Legislation

Azim Premji University,


Most discussions on the quality of government data overlook the legal framework within which data are collected. This paper examines India’s Census Act, 1948, which provides the legal-administrative framework for conducting human population census. The Act stipulates punishment for interfering with the process of enumeration, but the punitive provisions are rarely used and have not been invoked to deal with cases of mass manipulation of the census. Major instances of manipulation were, in fact, reported in 1951 and 2001 after the government introduced additional punitive measures in 1948 and 1994, respectively. This paper compares the Census Act, 1948 with other Indian laws related to the collection of statistics as well as census laws of other common law countries and identifies the structural flaws of the Indian law vis-à-vis manipulation. It uses simple games to explain why the punitive provisions of the Census Act, 1948 are redundant in the event of mass manipulation and suggests that the problem can be addressed without recourse to law. The insights drawn from the games are examined in light of the experience of Nagaland, a state of India where census statistics were manipulated on a large scale in 2001.