India begins world’s biggest head count

India began counting its billion-plus population Thursday, with 2.5 million census-takers fanning out across the country to photograph and fingerprint citizens for a new a database that will be used to issue its first national identity cards.

President Pratibha Patil joined the start of the 11-month exercise at her pink sandstone palace, which became the first household to be listed in the first phase of the census known as “house-listing.”

Over the next six months, census-takers, or “enumerators,” will travel across more than 630,000 villages and over 5,000 cities in the country to visit every structure that serves as a home to put together the national database.

From skyscrapers to tin shanties, census-takers will note details such as the availability of drinking water and electricity and the type of construction materials used for a comprehensive picture of housing in India.

The census-takers also plan to include millions of homeless people who sleep on railway platforms, under bridges and in parks.

“It is for the first time in human history that an attempt is being made to identify, count, enumerate and record and eventually issue an identity card to 1.2 billion people,” Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said.

India conducts a national census every 10 years, but it does not have a system of national identity numbers or cards for its citizens. The collection of fingerprints and photographs will be linked with another massive exercise launched last year to assign a number to every Indian.

Census-takers are typically government officials, school teachers or other local officials who go home-to-home collecting data on the size of families, marital status, education and work information. For the first time, they will also count bank account holders and cell phone users.

While China, the world’s most populous country, also counts its population, its census is carried out by various agencies, including Communist Party units, commune leaders and factory heads, unlike the single New Delhi-based Registrar and Census Commission that carries out India’s count.

India’s census will face a special challenge from left-wing extremists active in 20 of the country’s 28 states who have stepped up a campaign of violent attacks on government officials.

The census-takers plan to finish their work by February 2011. The information will be used for government policymaking, planning and budget allocations.

This will be India’s 15th census held without interruption at the start of every decade. Census operations in India were begun in 1872 by British colonial rulers.


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