Delay in Census enumeration, unreliable death registration and fake Aadhaar cards adversely impact integrity of elections, leads to misuse of public funds

By EAS Sarma

[In a brilliant letter to the home ministry, with copies marked to the Election Commission and to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, EAS Sarma underscores the urgency for holding the Census (originally scheduled for 2021) immediately. He points out that “Every day’s delay in conducting the Census exercise would only compound the downstream undesirable problems that much more, leading to irreversible adverse impacts on the country’s economy, the welfare of its people and the integrity of its electoral system.”]


Shri A K Bhalla
Union Home Secretary

Dear Shri Bhalla,

The statutory census enumeration exercise, conducted under the Census Act, every ten years, provides reliable data on the composition and the trends in growth of the population of India. It forms a unique basis for framing government policies and programmes.

In this connection, I refer to a statement reported to have been made by the Union Home Minister (HM) a few days ago ( to the effect that (i) the past Census data were not quite accurate, (ii) next population enumeration will be undertaken “electronically”, more accurately, (iii) enumeration will be done on the basis of more than 35 socio-economic parameters like never before, (iv) the Registration of Births & Deaths Act will be amended suitably and (v) on the basis of the proposed enumeration, the Population Register, databases relating to the Electoral Register, the Aadhar, the ration card, passports and driving licence will be updated.

Significantly, HM’s observations were conspicuously silent on the timeframe for the overdue Census of 2021, for which the policymakers, experts, and the public at large, are all waiting anxiously!

As rightly pointed out by the HM, the census data, obtained in a scientific manner, should be the basis for the Centre and the States in formulating their respective policies and programmes. It should be the touchstone, a reference point, for all other means of identification in the country, whether it is the ration card, the Aadhar Card, the election ID and so on. In the absence of periodically conducted Census exercises and a consistent set of time series data, as in the case of the decennial Census counts, it would be difficult to cross-check the accuracy of other modes of identification, which are extensively used by the Centre in formulating and implementing its policies and programmes.

Apparently, the Home Minister has not been adequately briefed on the proud track record of the highly professional, competent organisation that the Registrar General & Census Commissioner of India (RGCCI) heads.

The first Census in India was conducted as early as in 1881 and it was repeated at the beginning of every succeeding decade without a single instance of interruption, till the present government chose to defer the 2021 Census, presumably in the name of the two difficult Covid spurts during 2020 and 2021.

Outbreaks of disease like the present Covid virus spread, are not new to India.

Similar to Covid, if not more virulent, the Spanish flu of 1918-20 caused the death of 18 million people (roughly 5.6% of the population of India at that time). Even such an equally devastating virus wave, when no adequate vaccination facilities were available, did not deter the then RGCCI from conducting the Census exercise for 1921, right on time, as the government at that time earnestly felt committed to the idea of governance based on hard data, rather than on the basis of impressions and surmises. The decade intervening 1911 and 1921 was the only decade when India’s population registered a fall, though marginally. The Census exercises of both 1911 & 1921 were gigantic in magnitude, as they covered, in addition to the geographic extents covered today, additional areas such as Burma and Baluchistan, extending over 1.805 million sq miles, when the logistics were poor and modern technologies of electronic communications were not available!

Despite the turbulent process of transfer of power from the colonial British government to the elected governments in independent India around 1947, RGCCI conducted the Census of 1951 as usual, without putting forward any excuse for its deferment.

In other words, had the government stood committed to conducting the 2021 Census on time, RGCCI would have readily risen to the occasion and conducted the exercise without much delay. If not in 2021, at least by now towards the middle of 2023, the government should have got the Census exercise completed.

With modern technology permitting and new models of socio-economic development calling for data on specific additional items, for each succeeding Census, the questionnaire for RGCCI’s enumeration contained more and more questions to be listed for canvassing. The 2011 Census had in fact 34 questions. It is therefore a part of the process of evolution of decennial Census exercises to enlarge the questionnaire. What is more important is to ensure that the decennial Census exercise is conducted on time, instead of deferring it year after year, as is the case today, since irregular time series Census data can be far more counter-productive than the data, however constrained in coverage, secured on time. I feel surprised that even though sufficient time has elapsed since the last difficult Covid wave, the government should continue to drag its feet on conducting the long over-due 2021 Census!

To make light of the accuracy of the past Census data and cite better accuracy as an excuse for delaying the Census, in my view, is inappropriate, serving no valid purpose.

There are of course grey areas in the accuracy of the Census data and the RGCCI’s effort should be to improve the accuracy. One such area is the information compiled on the deaths, where there have been major gaps and concerns. The latest indications from the Home Ministry do not seem to address those concerns adequately. It is imperative that all deaths are authenticated medically in each case, reported and registered properly, For authentic assessment of the population changes decade after decade, registration of deaths is as important as registration of births.

Had the government conducted the 2021 Census on time, as its predecessors did during the past several decades, the database from it would have served as a highly reliable cross-check for Aadhar enumeration, preparation of electoral rolls and so on, an opportunity that the government has foregone for no good reason. As a result, as the available databases indicate, there has been a proliferation of fake Aadhar cards on the one hand and Aadhaar identity not being available to people living in remote areas with little or no connectivity on the other hand. With the government mandating Aadhaar linking to election ID cards, Jandhan bank accounts, ration cards, pensions and so on, fake Aadhar Cards have led to further complications, including fake bank transfers under many government-sponsored schemes. Those who have not been able to get an Aadhaar identity for one reason or the other stand deprived of the benefits granted by the Centre and the States under their respective welfare schemes. Fake Aadhar Cards have also created room for manipulation and misuse of electoral identity, which in turn could have already affected the integrity of the elections conducted from time to time. All this could have been avoided, had the government allowed its Census machinery to function and conduct the 2021 Census enumeration on time.

There are 314 Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSSs) in 51 Central Ministries linked to Aadhaar (/ In most cases, under these CSSs, the Centre transfers funds directly to beneficiaries’ bank accounts, without going through the concerned States and the local Panchayats, thereby precluding any independent verification. In other words, fake Aadhar Cards would imply the misappropriation of public funds on a fairly significant scale.

In this connection, I invite your attention to a letter dated 16-5-2023 addressed by me to the C&AG ( requesting him to order a forensic audit of the Aadhar system, as it seems to be the root cause of the range of problems indicated above. The C&AG’s office would have found it easier to conduct such an audit, had the Census data for 2021 been readily available.

The extent of the proliferation of Aadhar Cards and the deficiencies in the registration of deaths and other related matters have been analysed well by Shri R N Bhaskar, a public-spirited researcher and a journalist, on the basis of authentic data available in the public domain, in his three well-argued articles accessible at

Shri Bhaskar’s analysis leads to the following important findings:

  1. The existing system of recording of deaths is inaccurate, the inaccuracies ranging between 20-70%, with 20-22% of the deaths not medically certified. Deaths not reported would result in ghost Aadhaar Cards, ghost voter IDs, fake ration cards, and false Jandhan accounts, leading to manipulation in elections, misuse of public funds and occasionally, cyber manipulation of the accounts of banks’ other account holders.
  2. The government adopted a special scheme recently to compensate for Covid deaths of all those families to which the deceased belonged, in deserving cases. However, in the absence of accurate data on deaths substantiated through authentic medical certification to the effect that they were Covid-related, compensation could have gone to the wrong beneficiary families and also not gone to many deserving cases, when the beneficiary families could not report for one reason or the other.
  3. The available evidence, as well-analysed by Shri Bhaskar, clearly points to the existence of a large number of fake Aadhaar Cards. For example, there are at least 9 States in which the number of Aadhaar Cards exceeds the State’s population and 20 States show steep surges in the number, some being border States. Fake Aadhaar Cards, as already pointed out, give rise to multifarious downstream adverse consequences.

While I had earlier requested the C&AG to conduct a forensic audit of the Aadhaar system, in the absence of a regularly conducted Census exercise and the databases generated from it, the C&AG can at best conduct an audit on the basis of random sampling based on statistical techniques, which may not fully reveal the factual situation. This is certainly not a satisfactory state of affairs.

Instead, the government should shed all its reluctance to conduct the long overdue 2021 Census exercise and ask RGCCI to conduct a full-fledged Census at the earliest possible time, as that is the only way to contain the scourge of false Aadhaar Cards and all its other undesirable consequences, including large scale misuse of public funds under the 314 Aadhaar-linked CSSs and the threat that false Aadhaar Cards would pose to the integrity of the electoral process.

In my view, there is no other alternative to the government than proceeding on a war footing and organising the 2021 Census at least now. Every day’s delay in conducting the Census exercise would only compound the downstream undesirable problems that much more, leading to irreversible adverse impacts on the country’s economy, the welfare of its people and the integrity of its electoral system.

I am marking a copy of this letter to the C&AG and the Election Commission of India (ECI) for appropriate responses from them on the issues involved.

May I request you to get the above aspects considered carefully and act urgently, as the government cannot afford to delay the 2021 Census any longer?


Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to the Government of India


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