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World: Analysis From Washington -- Counting Heads, Courting Disaster

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Death threats to census takers in Kashmir underscore the extraordinary political sensitivity of the kinds of demographic information governments require to conduct their affairs.

Officials in the portions of Kashmir controlled by India attempted to conduct a census there during September. But resistance from the predominantly Muslim population -- objections rooted in the fear that New Delhi will falsify the census to advance its claims to this long-disputed territory -- has forced those officials to extend the September 30 deadline indefinitely.

But the chances that the Indian officials will succeed have now been reduced. Over the last two weeks, Muslim groups have raided census offices and issued death threats to census takers. Not surprisingly, many Indian census takers have decided not to continue work even though the Indian government has threatened to withhold their salaries. In the words of one lapsed enumerator, "I don't want to put myself and my family at risk by participating."

And the main pro-Pakistani Kashmir group, Hizbul Mujahideen, issued a statement last weekend that called into question the ability of the Indian authorities to protect census takers. In its words, "Hizbul will keep its guns ready to preserve the Muslim majority character of the state."

Conducting counts of the population in disputed territories like Kashmir has always been difficult, but census takers around the world face a rising tide of resistance from populations concerned that censuses are too invasive of their privacy and thus give governments too much power over their lives.

In the United States earlier this year, many people objected to the latest census on those grounds, and politicians in both parties pledged that future censuses would be made less invasive. But at the same time, a record number of Americans returned their census forms thus allowing the government to make plans and allocate resources with an accurate picture of the U.S. population.

Currently in China, where some six million census takers are at work on that country's fifth national census, a significant portion of the population may be trying to evade them lest authorities learn that they live in places without permission or that they have more children than the government allows. Such data, many ordinary Chinese fear, could be used to force them to pay large fines.

And many local and regional officials share these concerns, frightened that any accurate count could call into question the figures they have been using to get aid from Beijing. Not only could these officials lose financially, but they could even be removed from office and sent to prison.

The Beijing government has sought to allay popular fears about the census: The state-controlled youth newspaper, for example, featured an article claiming that President Jiang Zemin answered all questions in the census "from beginning to end with a smile."

In Turkey meanwhile, census takers two weeks ago reported that the population had soared from 62.8 million in 1997 to 71.9 million this year. Such an increase can only be explained by large-scale immigration, a jump in the birthrate, or massive fraud.

Most observers believe that fraud is the explanation. Ankara's "Hurriyet" newspaper, for example, suggested that the state statistical agency believes that too and has told authorities that some five million people were listed in the census who do not in fact exist. Regional officials ordered or bribed census takers to take the names off the headstones in cemeteries, invent entries, or count particular individuals more than once.

But while that paper and other Turkish institutions have called for punishing the census takers who filed false information, they and most Turkish citizens do not want a repeat enumeration. They remember all too well that the dawn-to-dusk curfew on the day of the census not only allowed the police to round up suspects they had been looking for but also cost Turkish businesses millions of dollars in sales.

Many other countries, including most of the post-Soviet states, suffer from the same problems. Since becoming independent, most former Soviet republics have been extremely reluctant to conduct a census lest new and more accurate numbers point to a shift in the ethnic composition of the population or require the redrawing of electoral districts, either of which could spark a political crisis.

But governments and the people they represent need the kind of information that only an accurate census can provide, and consequently, most governments will continue to be forced to conduct such enumerations -- even if the profession of census taker appears likely to become a dangerous one.

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