People! We are very interesting. In some ways.

When the PM (currently Sri Narendra Modi) of India has to coordinate and set the tone for the development of the nation (along with the entire government structure from Central government to village panchayat), one of the key areas of information needed will be about people! Knowledge about people is vital to know what they need, what they think, what resources need to be made available to them, etc. All this, so that the population of the nation can become both agents for development and the beneficiaries of that development.

The study of human populations is called demography (Greek, demos – populace, people; graphein – to write about). But we always study human populations in a geographical context – from the global scale to the local scale. World populations to regions, nations, states, etc. down to your own family! Populations live, move about, and die in geographic space, don’t they? Therefore, demography is a very integral part of geography in many ways.

How many people?

In simple, raw numbers how much a population changes in a particular area (remember the geography!) is intuitively simple:

Total population change = (Number of additions) – (number of subtractions). What constitutes additions? Total number of live births + total number of in-migrants to that area. Likewise, subtractions are number of deaths + number of out-migrants. (You can also use immigrants for in-migrants, and emigrants for out-migrants – I use in- and out- because when speaking them out, the two words may be difficult to differentiate… thank goodness for synonyms!). So, now, we can say that Total Population Change = (number of live births + number of in-migrants) – (number of deaths + number of out-migrants).

The equation is simple enough. But the data to put into it so that we can calculate the change – that is not so simple. Especially we have to count over a billion people in India! And these people are distributed all over the country – often in very remote and difficult-to-access places. This is exactly what the Census of India does.


We get “census” from the Latin censere – to assess, to register. Thus, a census is an official enumeration (counting) of the human population of a specific geographic area (country, state, district, etc.).

Since 1871, when the first formal census of India was undertaken, every ten years, giving us a decennial census (from Latin, deca: ten, annial: yearly, from annum: year) from then to now. Again, the geography – remember that India’s boundaries (and therefore, area and population) were very different in 1871 to what it is now – that’s India’s historical geography. Still, every ten years, the census has been conducted, door to door, and it is one of the best censuses in the world.

There are many characteristics of the population that a census captures. For example: age, gender, education, income, marital status, number of children, employment, type of residence, physical disability, and much more. Of course, all these are linked to geography. Thus, a census can tell us the characteristics of different geographical regions such as states, districts, towns, taluks, villages, etc.

Knowing these characteristics is very useful for a variety of reasons. Here are some examples why:

  • The percentage of males and females in each age group can help us determine what kinds of educational, medical, and other facilities need to be provided in the area. It can also tell us what the male:female sex ratio is. If there are many more males than females, it could indicate social problems such as discrimination against females or worse.
  • Where are people in-migrating from and out-migrating to? How many of each kind? Who is migrating, for what reasons, and for how long? This will help us understand the various local issues that are either driving people out or attracting them in and accordingly policy decisions can be taken to provide adequate services.
  • In 21st century India, the service (tertiary) sector is expanding. The large population of young people are needed to fill jobs in this sector. Where do they live? How many of them are there? What kind of education are they getting? What kinds of institutions and facilities do they need?
  • Knowing these data and the answers to these questions also helps politicians devise their political strategies accordingly.
  • Businesses can understand where their markets are and how to sell their goods and services more effectively. For example: if you are selling insurance to senior citizens, you would need to know how many there and where they are located, what languages they speak, etc. so you can adjust your sales strategy accordingly.

In my next column, I will share some things about population change and stories that I have seen and heard that put a human face to the data. Cultural practices are a very important factor in all these.

Things you can do:

  1. Visit the Indian census department web site and explore the kinds of data they have there.  Free downloadables from the India census site.
  2. If there are both boys and girls in your school, construct age-sex pyramid for the population of your school. Include the staff also. This is not as simple as it may seem. But it can be much fun. Figure out what information you would like to collect, and how to collect it. You will need to learn how to ask questions in such a way that people will want to answer your questions. (In your case, you have an advantage that most adults don’t have – you can put on puppy-dog eyes and ask and no one may be able to refuse to answer your questions! J )
  3. Prepare a table of your data results and make observations about each kind of data. E.g.: how many males and females in each group are there? How many of them have themselves in-migrated from other places? How many people are there in their respective households? What kind of TV do they have? Do they have internet connection at home? … really, the list can be very interesting; use your imagination. But the data you collect must help you understand something about the population; they can’t be random questions.
  4. If you do a census, share your tables and your findings with us at
  5. Recently, a new state, Telengana was formed. In what ways could this affect the next census? Also, when is the next census going to be?

(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 18 September 2014.)


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