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How census data can transform sustainable development

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Census data can be the backbone of solving our sustainability issues.

Checking all the boxes by Aveera Juss

Censuses are massive undertakings that primarily enumerate national populations. The central governments that run this process add further value by collecting additional useful data. Having such high-quality information freely accessible to the government, researchers, and civil society, can play an instrumental role in sustainability. Since census data cover the entire population and are organised ideally for spatial analysis, they can form the backbone of data-driven sustainable planning. Several sustainability efforts have actively made use of census data worldwide- such as transport studies, gender inequality research, and environmental justice. As the COVID pandemic-delayed 2021 Census inches closer in India, an effective and exhaustive process can boost informed sustainability action; but biased and incomplete data collection can prove costly.

The term ‘census’ most commonly - and in this article- refers to the national population and housing censuses periodically arranged by the government. International and national organisations both emphasise that this process must also collect valuable information. Enumerators in India’s 2021 Houselisting Census will visit individual buildings and households to conduct a 31-question survey on the condition of the house, members of the household, and access to facilities (water, power, sanitation, personal vehicles). The questionnaire for the following Population Enumeration Census hasn’t been released yet, but will likely be similar to the 2011 effort that collected age, gender, SC/ST status, literacy and education, employment, and other information. These census data are arranged in census blocks or tracts, an area usually smaller than official districts or subdistricts.

Users of Census Data

Given the importance of data-driven governance, the census plays a pivotal role in research. Basic demographic and development information quantified in census data can serve as the foundation for all kinds of policy research. Think tanks, educational institutions, bureaucrats, politicians, and others can analyse this readily accessible data in their studies, or use it to draft hypotheses and pick samples for specific surveys.

Furthermore, census data can also highlight areas or issues where there are gaps in government influence. Organisations like civil society NGOs, cooperatives, mutual aid groups, and more have used this to identify where their work is necessary and more impactful. These organisations fulfil a meaningful role in working towards equity and building capacity, and so are important to sustainable governance.

The governmental role of census data is hard to overstate. Understanding population dynamics is key to well-planned development. The importance of exhaustive census data was illustrated by Ghana’s plans for inclusive growth. Despite halving the poverty rate by 2013, many regions had more than 70 per cent of the population beneath the poverty line. In response, Ghana invested heavily in its census infrastructure and technology in 2019 to “leave no one behind,” and recognise inequities in their data. Hence from shaping policy agenda to monitoring progress toward targets, census data help the government by depicting a nationwide image with high local resolution.

Examples of Use

Census data is collected blockwise; these blocks are usually smaller than the smallest political subdivision like wards or subdistricts. The fact that census data are spatially linked to such a fine grid, makes them highly favourable for spatial analysis. Spatial analysis is crucial for sustainability research since these studies regularly examine environmental issues or regional variations in development and facilities. Having accurate information linked to defined and hyperlocal geographical unit subdistricts is extremely useful, making censuses the standard data source for most Geographical Information System (GIS) analyses of human populations.

Focusing on specific sustainability challenges can provide examples of how they have been addressed using census data. Effective public transport can aid several sustainability goals by reducing emissions, building sustainable cities, and widening community mobility and access. Census data are often used in transport evaluations, as in a 2011 study which found that 70% of Melbourne’s population shared just 19% of public transport. Census data provided the population and employment density statistics, and their distance from transport infrastructure could be measured using census blocks.

Environmental injustice can also be revealed using census data. Environmental hazards are described by the area that they affect, and so the human impact can be understood by overlaying these hazards onto census data maps. Using this technique, the caste, gender, and community makeup of the populations exposed to pollutants, waste, water scarcity and more can be evaluated. For example, a 2019 study found that subdistricts with higher SC/ST populations in Gujarat were more likely to house accident-hazard industrial facilities. A pan-India study on district-level air pollution found similarly skewed exposure. Such studies use census data to bring further emphasis to disproportionate environmental threats and can inspire corrective action.

Room to Improve

India’s 2021 Census is momentous. Delayed by the pandemic and India’s first to use mobile apps to log data rather than paper and pen, there is a worrying chance of human error seeping in. Census data with low integrity are not only less effective, but they can also be harmfully misleading. Politicised data, lack of inclusivity, poorly trained enumerators, and underestimating urban populations can all derail the potential of the census to spur inclusive growth. Census data can truly aid sustainability only if the census backbone is strong and data protocols are thorough and honest.

The emergence of international institutions, such as the UN’s Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data & the G8’s Open Data Charter, is evidence of the important role census data can play in achieving sustainable development goals. In India, technological advances and the decision to categorise data on households led by transgender persons for the first time in 2021 show trends toward a more inclusive census process. With continued efforts to boost community participation and collect useful data, the 2021 Census can play an instrumental role in India’s push to realise the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.


H.T. Correspondent & Agencies. (2020, January 10). Census officials to ask 31 questions, will seek information on what you eat, phones you own. Hindustan Times.

Samuel, S. (2019, May 30). Ghana’s new census shows its data-driven approach to fighting poverty. Vox.

Delbosc, A., & Currie, G. (2011). Using Lorenz curves to assess public transport equity. Journal of Transport Geography, 19(6), 1252–1259.

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2017). Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses (Revision 3). United Nations Publication.

Kumar, V. (2020, August 13). Census 2021 will be delayed. It gives Modi govt time to bring long-pending reforms. ThePrint.

Chakraborty, J., & Basu, P. (2018). Linking Industrial Hazards and Social Inequalities: Environmental Injustice in Gujarat, India. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(1), 42.

Geospatial World. (2020, September 7). Importance of gridded population data in decision making.

Sheth, H. (2020, January 18). In a first, census to categorise data on households run by transgenders separately. Business Line.

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