After around one and a half years of delay caused by complexities in purchasing tablet computers, the 6th population and housing census is finally set to begin at the zero hour of 15 June with the counting of the floating population. Data collection at the household level will continue until 21 June.
The previous five censuses were conducted between the months of January and March – which fall in the dry season, and yet about 5% of the population remained unaccounted for. Therefore, experts fear that more people will be left out this time as the census will be carried out in the rainy season.
Sources said the Bureau of Statistics also was looking at several challenges in collecting population data during the monsoon, and to overcome those challenges it proposed some revisions to the "Population and Housing Census-2021" project for the second time, which got the government's nod recently.
To ease census activities during the rainy season, the statistical agency will be spending Tk12.85 crore on buying about four lakh umbrellas for the enumerators and waterproof bags to protect tabs. Besides, transport fares in hard-to-reach areas and honorariums in various sectors have also increased.
Planning Minister MA Mannan approved the BBS proposals without raising them in the Ecnec meeting as the total cost and tenure of the project remained unchanged.
The census was scheduled to be conducted at the beginning of last year under the project taken up in April 2019, but it was delayed due to the Covid pandemic, the sources mentioned, adding dates were finalised again to conduct the census in October last, but that too was not possible because of complexities in buying tabs.
Although the tabs have been purchased from Walton Digi Tech Industries Limited at a price of Tk105 crore less than the estimated price, all the money saved is now going to various sectors, including buying umbrellas and waterproof bags.
Zahid Hussain, former lead economist at the World Bank's Dhaka office, has, however, criticised the decision to buy umbrellas for the census workers and termed the matter "ridiculous" and "unreasonable".
There is no rationale for providing census workers with products for their personal use, he said, adding that many people worked on many government projects but they were not given umbrellas in the rainy season.
The BBS in its project amendment proposal also stated that a third zonal operation was required as the census did not start on time. Apart from this, the project has been revised because of a need for funds for the purpose of tabs and software testing, paying honorariums to census standing committees at the division, city corporation, district, upazila, and union levels, and procuring umbrellas.
It also said the project has been undertaken for the purpose of decision-making, implementation, monitoring, and maintenance of development plans and programmes for the development of the country up to the village level on the basis of population characteristics.
At the same time, the data collected during the census will be used in making decisions regarding imports and exports to meet the demand for agricultural and industrial products at the national as well as regional levels, and in various surveys, including the next economic census and agricultural census, added the agency.
More people likely to be left out
The BBS in its project proposal said the weather would be favorable across the country during the conduct of the main census. However, economists and statisticians are very skeptical about favourable weather in the month of Ashar, which marks the beginning of the rainy season as per the Bangla calendar, and therefore, they assume that many people will be left out of the census.
Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said if the census is conducted in the rainy season, it will be difficult to count the people living in char, haor, and coastal areas as well as the tribal communities, those with disabilities, and the floating people. But the authorities have not taken up the kind of publicity campaigns they need to bring these people under the census, he pointed out.
Besides, owing to conducting the census at an unfavorable time, the government will have to incur extra expenditure, he added.
He further said the initiative of conducting the census by using technology deserves praise, but it was right to defer the data collection work till the rainy season.
Earlier, the BBS had counted 14.23 crore people in the fifth census conducted in March 2011. The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), however, had the figure of 14.98 crore people in its counting.
Also, in the census conducted in the last week of January 2001, the BBS found 12.44 crore people, but the number stood at 12.93 crore in the calculation of the BIDS.
Syed Shahadat Hossain, a professor at the Institute of Statistical Research and Training (ISRT) at Dhaka University, said it is difficult to get accurate census data on rainy days. "But, if all the initiatives taken by the BBS are successful, a fairly accurate population number can be obtained."
Jamal Uddin, professor of statistics at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, said it will be difficult to collect information about marginal people by conducting the census in the monsoon. Data collection will be impossible, especially in hilly areas such as Sylhet, he added.
Hikes in expenses
The project was approved by Ecnec in April 2019, involving an estimated cost of Tk1,761.79 crore. When the foreign aid component of Tk181.11 crore for this project became uncertain, the cost of the project was brought down to Tk1575.68 crore. The total cost has remained unchanged in the second revision, but the money saved from the procurement of tabs has been distributed among other sectors.
Besides the fresh allocation of Tk12.85 crore for buying umbrellas and waterproof bags, the allocation for honorariums has been raised to Tk19.06 crore from Tk2.09 crore, for overtime to Tk1.5 crore from Tk70 lakh, for refreshment to Tk66.43 crore from Tk50.32 crore, hiring charge to Tk32.9 crore from Tk15.83 crore, seminar and conference to Tk8.29 crore from Tk4.05 crore, and for consultancy the allocation has been raised to Tk7.02 crore from Tk4.08 crore.
In addition, the expenditure on data storage will increase by 75%.
When asked, Planning Minister MA Mannan said, "Even though the census was supposed to be held last year, we had to defer it for several reasons. We got the first hiccup because of Covid. After that, procurement-related complexities created another hurdle."
The purchase of tabs was not possible at the time as the proposal was repeatedly being rejected by the Cabinet Committee on Public Purchase.
He also said there is no room for delaying the census because of rain or any other reasons. In this situation, it is not possible to defer the census any further.