Saturday, May 08, 2010

One house at a time

Thursday evening, 6 p.m. The work day is over for many of us, at least those for whom it who began in the morning. The bell rings. A slightly built man is at the door, two thick plastic folders under his arm and a cloth bag over his shoulder. "Census madam," he says, a bit hesitantly (because, I discover later, he expects to be chewed over by the irate inhabitants of this colony, as he has been warned). I invite him inside and ask if he wants a glass of water, seeing as it is really really hot, 42 degrees and no rain. "Later, madam. First, I need to ask some questions." He sits down on a chair in the fan-less verandah, refusing to come inside where there is a bit more air and the whiff of breeze from a cooler. A. Ramesh, the forty-ish schoolteacher who has come to do "census duty" asks me diligently about my antecedents, qualifications, and occupation, and then moves on to the head of the household and others. His hesitant manner slips a bit as he tells me about the work he has been "conscripted" into. He has been walking through colonies like mine for the past two weeks and will do the same for the next two. The data for Hyderabad's 8 million or so inhabitants is to be collected by June 10. This is the first phase of the Census, also known as the Housing and Houselisting Survey. Some people answer with a smile, making his job in the heat of the summer just a bit easier. Others turn him away saying they do not have the time to answer, telling him to come later. He will return once or twice, or as many times as it takes him to get the information, but before the deadline. Fortunately Ramesh does not have to deal with a classroom just now, as summer holidays have begun. So while his students take a break from his science lessons, he beats the streets with this two plastic folders, a stock of pencils and an eraser (I noticed because he was able to amend the form after I had given him a couple of unnecessary answers that he had to delete!). Those who do remain inaccessible will be covered in the next sweep, after which the data are consolidated.

After the glass of cold water that follows his data entry and my counter questions, Ramesh finally leans back and allows himself to relax just a little bit, before he moves on to the next house. He leaves me with a scrap of paper, a receipt which is to be produced after my face and fingerprints are captured so that a e Unique Identification Number can be assigned. This will be another mammoth task, and both together will give the Government of India its single biggest planning tool, to be then combined with formulae for resource use and generation, social services and their distribution, and projections of all kinds.

Ramesh is one of 2,500,000 individuals who have been called upon to help bring in this data. School teachers like him are the foot soldiers of these initiatives, and while they do earn a small additional allowance for their participation, it is certainly not voluntary--for those in government schools and government aided schools, such tasks often take up so much time that they cannot do justice to their primary occupation, teaching. In this case, the enumeration has been scheduled so that teaching schedules are minimally affected.

The exercise is huge, the largest of its kind, barring perhaps a Census that might be done in China. The Indian Census for the first time will also record details such as each household's connectivity and access to water, sanitation and power. The sheer logistics of the operation, along with the possibilities that come from good use of the data, are amazing (a word I do not like, but find useful here).

So, I guess, it's time for us all to stand up and be counted...and to let those who count into our homes with a glass of water at least, to give them a bit of respite from the blazing summer sun!

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