The Indian census just released its first numbers. Population growth slowed in the last decade, but India still added 181 million people to its rolls. To put the figures in some perspective, India now has as many people as the USA + Indonesia + Brazil + Pakistan + Bangladesh + Japan.
But when the census enumerator came to our home in Kolkata, he wouldn’t include me. I was not permanent, he said. I watched him tick off my mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, their children.
I felt like a ghost, invisible to all of them, suspended between worlds.
India is not interested in free-wheeling migratory birds like me. But it is illuminating to see what the 15th national census is interested in. It’s a peephole into a changing India.
For the first time ever, the Indian census had three boxes under sex: Male, Female or Other. “The transgender community has a peculiar existence in our society,” said Dipak Ghosh, the officer in charge of the census in my state of West Bengal. “They can’t mingle with the common people. They are held in suspicion.”
He took a long sip from his teacup. “The enumerators are mostly ladies,” he said conspiratorially. “When they are meeting a transgender person, they will be…” he trailed off mid-sentence, then added with some conviction, “We have to come out of this mindset.”
Census enumerators have to be trained to be sensitive. The transgender community must be helped to understand that the headcount isn’t some government roundup. Non-governmental organizations that work with sexual minorities have assisted with the effort, but Ghosh’s colleague Purnendu Banerjee, India’s deputy registrar general, said sometimes even that is not enough to ensure they are getting the correct data. The person answering the questions might be the head of the household. He might identify someone as his son. But the son might actually consider herself a woman.
The census enumerator at our house did not ask my family about gender identity. He filled in those boxes himself.
The 29 questions on the census might reflect changing social mores, but there’s no guarantee those questions will actually be asked. For example, the census is trying to collect more detailed data about mental disabilities than ever before. That is still a taboo subject, something not to be aired outside the family. “We have observed the disabled percentage is very low compared to other countries,” said Ghosh. “There is a tendency that disabled people are ignored or suppressed. We want to record this properly this time.”
Once, Indians were single, married or widowed. Then they were allowed to be divorced. This year, for the first time, they can call themselves separated.
Times are a-changing, but the census enumerator who came to our house asked none of these indelicate questions.
Patchy as they seem, these questions, asked or assumed, still provide a snapshot of India in 2011 that is surprisingly comprehensive. At the end of the day, the government expects the response rate to be 97 to 98 percent, Banerjee said. “In the U.S., the overall response rate is at best about 80 to 90 percent,” he said with a slight smile. In the U.S. forms arrive by mail. In India the enumerators go all over the country, by foot, train, and boat, to visit 200 million households. They ventured into red-light districts to count the prostitutes. They fanned out on street corners and railway stations to count the homeless.
But while the “biggest census in the history of mankind,” conducted in 18 languages by 2.7 million enumerators, evokes chest-thumping pride in some quarters, the first results have been sobering.
At 1.21 billion people, India missed its target for curbing its population growth. But much more damning is the sex ratio of that population. In 2001, there were 927 girls for every 1,000 boys up to the age of 6. Now there are only 914 girls for every 1,000 boys.
On the positive side, the female-to-male ratio has gone up slightly for the population as a whole. The literacy gap between men and women has narrowed.
But the drop in the proportion of young girls to boys calls into question all the talk of a modern, forward-thinking India that is trying to leave behind those clichéd images of widows with shorn heads, dowry deaths and female infanticides.
The census might want to count everybody. But some of us still don’t count for much.
Some of us don’t count because we are not permanent.
But much more seriously, some don’t count because they are little girls in a country that is obsessed with boys.
In India, even if you are not transgender, there are many ways you can still be Other.