The first phase of Census 2021 - which had been scheduled from April 1 to September 30 this year - has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Home Ministry informed the Parliament Wednesday.
In response to a question by Punjab Congress leader Partap Singh Bajwa, the government said the initial phase of census operations, which would have included related field activities such as the exercise to update the contentious NPR (National Population Register) has been deferred.
A final decision on when these activities will take place has not yet been made. It is unlikely, however, that these will be held this year.
One of the largest administrative and statistical exercises in the world, the census in India is conducted once a decade and normally involves around 30 lakh officials visiting every household across the length and breadth of the country.
However, with the outbreak of COVID-19 and strict instructions to follow social distancing and other hygiene protocols, concerns had been raised over health risks to all involved.
"As the entire exercise needs the involvement of lakhs of officials and visit to each family, we can't underestimate the health risks involved," a senior government official told news agency PTI late last month. "The census is not an essential exercise for now. Even if it is delayed by a year, there would be no harm," the official added.
India has recorded more than 50 lakh Covid cases since the outbreak began in December last year; over 90,000 were recorded in the past 24 hours.
In March, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India were set for the first phase to begin from April 1.
However, shortly after the lockdown came into force government officials told PTI that the operations would be deferred till further notice. The operations included updating the NPR - something several opposition parties have vehemently opposed.
According to the government the NPR - last carried out in 2010 (also as part of the census) - will help create a comprehensive identity database of every "usual resident" of the country and improve delivery of benefits from the government's various welfare schemes.
However, many saw the NPR as the problematic first step towards a proposed NRC (National Register of Citizens) that the government claims will weed out illegal immigrants, but critics fear could be used to target minorities.
Several state governments, including Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have requested the centre not to carry out the NPR over concerns about the kind of data being collected.
With input from PTI