India’s census results: Just getting by

Published on The Economist, by R.A., Mar 15, 2012.

UNDER a thatched roof, lit by a full, yellow moon, Shiv Kumari explains how she and her five children survive. She is a widow, 30 years old, living in a home made of packed mud. She works the nearby fields, draws a small pension, some food rations and gets a few days of paid labour each month from a rural make-work scheme.    

Semra village, made up of 70 households, most of them dalit, or lowest-caste, is not India’s poorest. It has no grid electricity, but for the past five years a couple of solar-powered street lamps have cast puddles of light each evening. It has no sewers or piped water, so villagers clank buckets at the village pump. Wood smoke from cooking fires envelops the homes each evening.

Despite some government help Ms Kumari, and hundreds of millions of other Indians, remain in poverty—roughly on a par with the poorest of Africans. Standard measures, such as the rate of child malnutrition (around two-fifths of Indian infants are stunted by hunger) suggest that while economic growth brings some broad benefits, it is coming slowly and unequally.

Discerning how and where those gains are being made, however, is made easier by India’s tradition of conducting an efficient census. On March 13th the census bureau released its first set of household data, from its decadal survey last year, suggesting both some dramatic changes and a dispiriting lack of progress.

Ms Kumari’s plight remains typical. India’s 247m households, two-thirds of them rural, have seen only limited gains in the past ten years, despite rapid economic growth. Some goods and services have reached even remote rural corners. Thus 63% of households have a phone (mostly mobiles), a massive leap from 9% a decade before. Two-thirds of homes have electricity and 47% have television. Nearly 60% have access to a bank, 45% have bicycles, and concrete—for roofs, floor and walls—is slowly covering ever greater swathes of India.

But other, basic, needs are hardly being met. Around half of all Indians (including 13% of urban dwellers) still have to defecate in the open. Piped and treated drinking water is a luxury enjoyed by just a third of homes. Poor sanitation means water-borne diseases, and those spread by poor hygiene, including basic ailments such as diarrhoea, continue to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands each year … (full text).

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