Amidst the hullabaloo over the US-backed resolution in Geneva, street protests opposing the move and concern over cost of living after the fuel price hike, an important national event went unnoticed and didn’t receive the attention it deserves.
This is the island-wide, national census, the first in 30 years, which began on Monday, February 27 and goes on till March 21.
Enumerators are already calling at homes and either taking the information or advising residents the date on which they would be returning if residents are unavailable in the first visit.
As expected and not unusual for an exercise of this magnitude of getting data of more than 20 million people, there are teething problems. One newspaper reported how enumerators had gone to the home of a Tamil resident and couldn’t either speak in English or Tamil, while the residents had a poor knowledge of Sinhala. The questionnaire was also not available in the Tamil language, which is a Constitutional right.
While more issues are expected to arise as the census process goes on, one hopes the Department of Census and Statistics would be quick in responding to these issues and correcting them. On the part of Sri Lankans, it is a vital exercise that is being undertaken and the responsibility for everyone to provide information as accurately and honestly possible as it sets the course of history in the next decade or so in terms of an accurate population and economic assessment, education and health status, the needs of the people and changing life-styles.
It is essential that the department and its representatives (enumerators) are people-friendly in their visits particularly handling residents in the North who have gone through a traumatic period during the conflict.
The information being collected in this census is much more comprehensive than during previous times owing to vast changes in the political, social and economic landscape in the country, a key element being a large segment of Tamils living abroad and many more Sri Lankans overseas as migrant workers.
These two segments alone would provide vital clues to chart the future progress of the country. Current figures show that there are some 500,000 Tamils who reside abroad while the migrant worker population is said to be over a million, which together totals 1.5 million or more. The 2012 census should provide a more accurate assessment of these numbers which is important for a variety of reasons not only to the government and policy planners but also to the private sector.
The profile of a population, particularly in the new development paradigm at the end of the conflict, is what the private sector would be keen to get their hands on, particularly the consumer goods sector. Such a profile will provide the needs (food, clothing, housing, etc) and aspirations (education, skills, jobs) of the people.
While the questionnaire has basic questions on name, sex, marital status, etc there are also responses sought on location of residence and or migration to other places.
Physical and mental difficulties are also being checked in addition to educational qualifications, ability to speak, read and write and in what language, use of computers, economic status (working or unemployed), whether persons have been abroad for six months or more, and housing and what type of housing.
An interesting part of the census is the request for fertility information.
It was the Business Times (then Financial Times) in an August 23, 2009 editorial that drew attention to the importance of the national census, which we re-iterate today.
Headlined, “Census key to assess population shifts”, the editorial said: “A comprehensive survey like this will provide valuable clues about Sri Lanka’s production, output, growth, employment and unemployment and other social indicators which haven’t come to the data collection process apart from a ‘bits-and-pieces (information at an ad hoc level)’ gathering process. The recent Jaffna Municipal Council elections was also an illustration of the lack of proper data when of the 100,400 registered voters less than half were physically present to vote – either being abroad or gone to reside outside the province.
The comprehensive census will be a boon to policymakers, economists and sociologists and provide valuable information for Sri Lanka’s social and economic progress in the next decade.”
While Sri Lankans are most likely to voluntarily furnish the information required, there undoubtedly would be concern, fear and worry whether the information used could be accessed by security agencies for their ‘own needs’. How the government uses this data also needs to be clearly defined and explained, to reassure the people.
The state has access to a lot of information from the people, particularly through the banking sector which has a stringent ‘Know Your Customer’ form which is required from customers. In addition, data is collected by mobile companies and others.
An element of trust must prevail between the enumerator and resident in the collection of the data to make the census process trouble-free.
It is incumbent on the Department to ensure that such information and the identity of individuals are kept confidential and not released to any party, state or otherwise, if for an ulterior motive.