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Census is the official count of population of a country. The United Nations defined census as the total process of collecting, compiling and publishing demographic, economic and social data pertaining, at a specified time or times, to all persons in a country or delimited territory. According to the UN, the census is featured by the following aspects: (i) Individual enumeration, (ii) Universality within a defined territory, (iii) Simultaneity and (iv) Defined periodicity. Among the recommended and useful topics to be covered in a census are the following: Firstly, Geographic Characteristics: place where found at time of census or place of usual residence, place of birth, duration of residence, place of previous residence, place of work; Secondly, Personal and Household Characteristics: sex, age, relationship to head of household/ relationship to head of family, marital status, duration of marriage, marriage order, children born alive, children living, citizenship, literacy, school attendance, educational attainment/educational qualification, national/ethnic group, language, religion; Thirdly, Economic Characteristics: type of activity, occupation, industry, status, main sources of livelihood. Some of the useful derived topics are: (i) Geographic Characteristics: total population, locality, urban and rural, (ii) Personal and Household Characteristics: household composition, family composition, (iii) Economic Characteristics: socio-economic status, dependency, etc. Based on de jure or de facto procedures all people are counted as resident or present in a defined territory along with other topics as mentioned above.

Medieval governments, both eastern and western, had conducted occasional censuses for taxation and military call-ups. Dooms Day Book or Domesday Book, a survey of land and landed people conducted by King William I in 1086 AD, is considered to be the earliest recorded census in history. The first census in the USA was conducted in 1790 followed by the censuses in England and France in 1801.

The first census undertaken in India was emperor akbar's survey and settlement of 1582 AD which had made a detailed enumeration of mouzawari rent-rolls. The survey known in history as Todar Mal's Bandubast recorded rent-payers, land under cultivation, categories of land according to productivity, rent structure of various categories of land, particulars of landholders, and so on. Though Bengal was not yet wholly under Akbar's kingdom, Todar Mal made a theoretical survey of Bengal sarkars as well. He enumerated the revenue rolls of seventeen Bengal sarkars or provinces.

Census began to obtain its modern form in the late eighteenth century. The United States government conducted the first census in 1790. The first British census on a decennial basis took place in 1801. Since then census science has developed into a unique exercise involving decennial assessment of socio-economic trends. In 1801, there was also a crude census of Bengal districts. Collectors, magistrates, and judges of Bengal districts were required to return estimated population of districts within their respective jurisdictions. The method of the census was to enumerate population of respective districts, taking five heads on an average for every household.

In the 1840s and 1850s, there were several surveys and censuses enumerating revenue paying and rent-free estates as well as the population of Bengal. The thakbast survey (1840s-1850s), which fixed the village boundaries of Bengal districts for the first time, prepared a sketch map for every mouza and made an enumeration of the village population, which was recorded in the map of the concerned mouza. The map contained a table giving the mouza's statistical details such as, households, population (based on average five heads per household), occupation, and the Hindu-Muslim break-up of village inhabitants. The chart also contained environmental enumeration such as livestock, cultivated land, wasteland, jungle-land, marshes, rivers and canals, bridges and culverts. These records provided basic material for ww hunter when he compiled his 20-volume Bengal gazetteer entitled Statistical Account of Bengal published in London in 1876.

The first decennial census in Bengal was undertaken in 1872. But the attempt failed to achieve its objectives. People, suspicious of the unprecedented population count, did not cooperate with the enumerators. However, this census led to the startling revelation that Bengal was a Muslim majority province. The second and third censuses of 1881 and 1891 fared much better, though earlier defects could not be entirely eliminated. According to demographers the censuses of the first three decades of the 20th century were fairly reliable.

The censuses of 1931 and particularly of 1941 lost their credibility due to fabrication of census data. Hindus and Muslims, motivated by communal enthusiasm, tended to submit false returns in favour of their respective communities. The census of 1951, the first census for East Bengal (East Pakistan), suffered weaknesses of a different kind. Recent two-way migration trends made the population count for many districts useless. The census of 1961 is regarded as the most reliable count undertaken since 1901.

The general features of the quality of censuses since 1951 can be summarised as follows:'

1. Undercount of infants and children is a general feature of the entire census series particularly for females. 2. The 1951 census was not well organised and no post enumeration check survey was conducted at the national level. In 1951, the extent of undercount in the urban areas was estimated as 5% and it was thought to be much higher. Assuming an under-enumeration rate of 4% at the national level, the total population size was adjusted at a later time. The population size was affected due to: (i) huge negative net migration (more out and less in) after 1941; (ii) over-enumeration of population in 1941 and (iii) famine of 1943. 3. The 1961 census was much better organised but later the population size was adjusted for substantial undercount (8.62%). 4. The PEC of the 1974 census showed an under-enumeration of 19.3% in four major cities and 6.5% elsewhere. The total population size was adjusted for an under-count of 6.88%. 5. The 1981 census was adjusted for an under-enumeration of 3.1%. 6. The net under-enumeration rate in 1991 census was 4.6% (4.0% in rural, 8.6% in municipal and 5% in other urban areas). 7. The 2001 census population was adjusted for 4.98% net under-enumeration (4.54% in rural areas, 5.81% in municipal areas, 3.73% in other urban areas and 7.67% in SMAs).

The census populations recorded from 1872 to 2011 are displayed in the following table:

Table Variation in population since 1872.

Year British Bengal Bangladesh Territory
1872 34, 691, 799 ---
1881 37, 020, 563 ---
1891 39, 812, 165 ---
1901 42, 888, 194 28, 927, 786
1911 46, 312, 262 31, 555, 056
1921 47, 599, 233 33, 254, 096
1931 51, 087, 338 35, 604, 170
1941 60, 306, 526 41, 997, 297
1951 --- 44, 165, 740 (42, 062, 610)
1961 --- 55, 222, 663 (50, 840, 234)
1974 --- 76, 398, 000 (71, 479, 071)
1981 --- 89, 912, 000 (87, 120, 119)
1991 --- 111, 455, 185 (106, 314, 992)
2001 --- 130, 522, 598 (124, 355, 263)
2011 --- 142,319,000

According to the provisional results of 2011 Population and Housing Census, the enumerated population on 15th March, 2011 was 142,319 thousand (Population and Housing Census 2011, Preliminary Results, July 2011, bangladesh bureau of statistics, p 3). The census data have become increasingly important for a country like Bangladesh mainly due to the importance in national planning. The population of Bangladesh has been passing through a very critical stage now due to initiation of population momentum when the population will increase rapidly during the next 40 to 50 years. During the process, the proportion of young age population will decrease sharply and the work age population will increase and thus the dependency ratio will decrease favouring the policy makers to plan for a rapid income growth in the country, if a proper plan is formulated on the basis of the changing population age composition based on the census data. During the process of population momentum, the proportion of elderly will steadily increase and that will result in increase in the dependency ratio once again. In addition, there is a remarkable trend of rural to urban migration in Bangladesh which will result in an enormous growth in the urban population during the next decades. Hence, the census data need to be employed carefully in order to make projections for the future changes so that we can obtain a clear view about the rapidly changing age composition of the population and their social, demographic, economic and health implications. [Sirajul Islam and M Ataharul Islam]

Bibliography Principles and Recommendations for National Population Censuses', Statistical Papers, Series M, No. 27, United Nations, 1958, p.3; Census of India, 1931, and 1941; Bangladesh Population Census, 1991, 2001, 2011.

See also population.