Shaktichakra, the wheel of energies

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

One frozen moment in 1911

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It was nearing an hour before noon as I approached the Bombay Gymkhana, having cadged a lift from a driver of a provisions carriage who was proceeding towards the Arsenal castle via Crawford Market. Although frowned upon by our editors – starchy old blokes – this was common for us reporters, impatient in our hurry to criss-cross the great city.

From Census of India 1911 report

From Census of India 1911 report

Today I had to hurry so as not to keep Mr Edward A Gait waiting. The Census Commissioner of India – his credentials were most impressive; C.S.I., C.I.E., I.C.S., Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society – had commanded the entire country to wait on the night of 10th March 1911 so that they should be counted. And that was the tale my editor wished to print in the pages of our thriving weekly newspaper. Punctual even for a lowly reporter, the great man was there already, and as I hurriedly made my way to his table, I saw that he had in his company three others, making the party two British and two Indian.

“Nimbu-pani is best for Indian summers, young man,” said Mr Gait with a ready smile as a signalled to a bearer, “It is part of our prescription to our field staff – that, quinine and hygiene. Now then, you want to know what happened on the night of the 10th of March, 1911, or so your editor tells me. Pay attention for an hour, for thereafter we must take our train.”

“An Indian census is beset with special difficulties owing to the long lines of railway,” said Mr Gait, “the big rivers on which boats travel, sometimes for days without coming to the bank, the forests to which wood-cutters resort, often for weeks at a time, and the numerous sacred places which, on occasion, attract many thousands of pilgrims. It would be tedious to describe the arrangements which were made in these cases, but they were all carefully provided for. Take the case of railways, for instance, all persons travelling by rail who took tickets after 7 pm on the night of the census were enumerated, on the platform if there was time, and if not, in their train.”

“What? Do you mean sir that you had enumerators even on our trains on that night?” I broke in, astounded by the degree of planning and detail this required.

“Certainly,” replied the Census head, “Those alighting at any station during the night were enumerated right there, unless they could produce a pass showing that they had already been counted. All trains were stopped, and every carriage visited, about 6 am on the following morning, in order to include any travellers who up till then had escaped notice. At one large junction alone, 60 special enumerators were engaged for the census of travellers by rail.”

So it was true then, the reports that had come to us from civic officials, who had told us in great excitement how extraordinary it was that every single passenger train on every railway line had been counted, every major crossroads watched and traffic to and from every coach station in our cities had been halted. We had at first taken this as fanciful. How on earth could a country be stopped in order to count its people?

Here, sitting at the same table, were the men who had done it.

From Census of India 1911 report

From Census of India 1911 report

“On the morning of 11th March the Enumerators of all the blocks in a circle met the Supervisor at a place previously arranged,” continued Mr Gait, “and filled in a form showing the number of occupied houses and of persons (males and females) in each block. The Supervisor, after testing these figures, prepared from them a summary for his circle, which he transmitted to his Superintendent. The summaries were added up at the district headquarters, and the result was telegraphed to the local Provincial Superintendent and to me, the Census Commissioner for India.”

“But how could you know, so quickly and so accurately, if your figures were correct?” I asked.

“Perhaps you’d like to explain, Mr Mallik,” said Mr Gait. “Young man, this able gentleman is Babu Anukul Chandra Mallik, Head Clerk of the Census Commission.”

“The organisation was so thorough that the results for the whole of India were received complete on the 19th March, within nine days of the Census,” Mr Mallik replied. “They were issued in print next day with an explanatory note and details of the variations since 1901, not only for Provinces and Agencies, but also for the individual districts and States and the principal towns.”

Babu Anukul took a sip of nimbu-pani. “Within four days of the census, the figures had already been reported for a population of 131 million, while on the sixth day they had been ascertained for 238 million, or nearly four-fifths of the total population. The record was broken by the States of Rampur and Sarangarh where, by dint of working all night, the local officers were able, with the aid of mounted messengers and other means of conveyance, to get the figures for all parts of the State to headquarters in time for the telegram reporting the result to reach me in Calcutta by 8 am on the following morning. The extreme celerity and accuracy with which this work was accomplished” – here he glanced at Mr Gait and Mr Meikle, who both nodded – “is not approached even in the smallest European States.”

“Remarkable,” I said, quite taken aback. Not even the most celebrated military campaign could have boasted such detailed organisation. “How many toiled for this work, and at what cost?”

“Let us start with the smallest. Superintendents prepared their local instructions, and we provided for the division of the whole country into blocks, each of which contained from 30 to 50 houses and was in charge of an Enumerator. The total strength of the census staff was about two millions. The actual cost of the census operations to the Government was 2,03,000 rupees – or rather less than in 1901. This is not unsatisfactory for there has been a marked rise in prices and wages during the decade, and that the population dealt with has increased by over 20 millions.”

With that, the four gentlemen rose – Mr Gait, Mr Meikle (Superintendent of Government Printing, India), Mr Mallik and Rai Manmohan Roy Bahadur (Special Assistant to the Census Commissioner). They climbed into a waiting victoria which smartly set off towards the station. This was the quiet team that had planned and carried out a great count that had reached almost 300 million Indians. How different might it be, I wondered, a hundred years hence.

(This account is of course fictional. I have no way of finding out whether these four gentlemen ever got together, and if so then where. I set this imaginary encounter in Bombay 1911. What is entirely true are the events and work described by Mr Gait, for these details are taken direct from the report in volume one of the 1911 Census of India. Forgotten today, but incredible. The Khaleej Times has published this little cameo.)


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  1. […] is the second of my entries on the 2011 Census of India (see the posts ‘One frozen moment in 1911′ and ‘British Bombay’s furious 1911 growth rate’). These will continue to appear […]

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