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The BBC's Mike Wooldridge in Delhi
"Since the last census in 1991, India's population has crossed one billion"
 real 56k

Friday, 9 February, 2001, 07:15 GMT
India begins epic census
Crowd at the Kumbh Mela festival
India's population passed one billion last year
India, the second most populous nation in the world, has begun the mammoth task of conducting its first census in a decade, a year after the population officially crossed one billion.

Several states, including Jammu and Kashmir, have already been surveyed for the census; now the process begins for the rest of the country.

However, counting has been postponed in Gujarat, where authorities are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the earthquake in which killed at least 30,000 people and left as many as one million homeless.

Quake victims
The devastation in Gujarat has made counting impossible
The decision was taken even before another powerful aftershock on Thursday, registering 5.3 on the Richter scale, added to the difficulties of the relief operations and to public anxiety.

Elsewhere, the exercise will take until the end of the month and involve around two million census workers, who will visit homes in more than 5,000 towns and cities and more than 600,000 villages.

Scale of change

Questions are designed to establish just how much change has taken place in the lives of urban and rural Indians as a result of the economic reforms that began at the time of the last census in 1991.

India's census
Takes place every 10 years
Involves more than 2 million census workers
Counters visit 5,000 towns and 600,000 villages
Predicted 98% accuracy
One of India's most publicised revolutions will be reflected in the operation: computers will be used to a far greater extent this time and the authorities are promising 98% accuracy.

There are a number of changes to this year's census. Giving details of their occupation, respondents will this time be able to answer: "Software engineer".

The census will also shed new light on gender issues, particularly the ratio of females to males, which in the last census stood at 927 to 1,000.

Development experts say poorer care for girl children, abortion of female foetuses and sometimes even female infanticide contribute to the imbalance.

Census criticised

However, some have criticised the validity of some of the census questions.

We still have not got all the information gathered in the 1991 census

Aneeta Minocha, sociologist
"Rather than asking whether a person is bilingual and what is his religion, the queries should be the type of school his children go to and whether he had direct water supply," said Aneeta Minocha, a professor of sociology at Delhi University.

She also cautioned about expecting too much too soon:"The complete data takes years to come. We still have not got all the information gathered in the 1991 census."

Despite this, census officials are confident the exercise will be more than a mere head count and give a true demographic picture of the country.

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See also:

06 Feb 01 | South Asia
Quake leaves million homeless
25 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
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