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8th July 2001
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Countdown to head count

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Renuka Sadanandan
The most famous head count in history is linked to a well-known story, of particular religious significance to Christians around the world. How in Roman times in the reign of Caesar Augustus, a humble carpenter and his wife who was heavy with child made the arduous journey on a donkey's back from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The babe born during that census was Jesus Christ.

In those far-off days, people were commanded to return to their traditional villages for the census count. But as dusk falls on July 17 in Sri Lanka, people will only be expected to stay home in their 'usual residences', as a small army of men and women with sheaves of paper in hand, fan out to the remotest hamlet and most crowded 'watte' to take the headcount.

It's been twenty years since the last census was held on March 17, 1981. In 1991, the census could not be held due to the situation in the north and the east. Customarily, a census is held in a year ending with 0 or 1, in compliance with international standards.

"July 17 will be a half-holiday and Sri Lanka will come to a standstill. Shops, cinemas and offices will close early and transport will be minimal. People are expected to be in their 'usual places of residence' between six p.m. and 12 midnight. Everyone must get themselves enumerated once that night, but never more than once," said Director General of Census and Statistics Department A.G.W Nanayakkara. 

In his Maitland Crescent office stacked high with files tied with pink tape, the Census chief was a busy man last Wednesday, taking a breather only to open a card wishing him a happy and successful census. 

His senior staff are all out on the field and "because of their dedication, I'm relaxing in my office," he quipped. 

The weighty process of organising the nation's 13th census began some three years ago. "In a census such as this, the field operations are the major tasks. The first stage, which we started in 1998 was the preparation of detailed maps of the 14,113 Grama Niladhari divisions. The boundaries had to be clearly demarcated so that there was no overlap, duplication or omission of housing units, other buildings or individuals."

As the Grama Niladhari divisions were too large they were divided into more manageable 'census blocks', each comprising around 80 units (houses or buildings) in urban areas and 60 in rural areas. This mapping operation ended in December last year.

The second stage involved 'pre-listing', which was listing and numbering of each and every housing unit. This was done in February, March and April this year. Enumerators from the Census Dept. went from door to door, filling up the 'pre-listing' or F1 form. The listed units were serially numbered and this number known as the 'census unit number' was written on a red census label and affixed at a prominent place, usually on the frame of the front door. The F1 form contains basic, but vital information like the name of the chief householder, the number of residents etc. "This is the basic frame for censuses and survey that will be conducted by the Dept. in the next ten years," Mr. Nanayakkara said.

Then came the preliminary census. From June 25 to July 5, the enumerators were on the road again, this time collecting more detailed data. "Urban areas, especially Colombo were the most complex. My men and women often came up against locked gates. It was not that people were uncooperative, it was just that they were not at home. So they had to go back again late at night or on a holiday to catch them."

"The enumerators carried a detailed questionnaire to get accurate information. Though some people were afraid to divulge information, the individual information we receive is strictly confidential. Sometimes people think we are going to ask them about their income, but what we are looking for is information on housing, education and social factors. We are not going to send the taxman after them. What we are seeking is the true picture. There is no point in spending so much money, if it's garbage in, garbage out," Mr. Nanayakkara said.

The whole census operation costs the nation a hefty Rs. 417 million. 'We got nothing from outside as the international community felt we were more than competent in handling it on our own. The total allocation was from the Sri Lankan government."

W.A.A.S. (Sappy) Peiris, who was the man in charge when Sri Lanka last held a census, remembers that in his time it cost Rs. 15 million, about Re 1 per person. "We received help from the US Census Bureau and in fact, several of my staffers went there for training," Mr. Peiris said. He was also appreciative of the people's co-operation the last time and in his final report, notes, "Mixed with a sense of relief is a feeling of gratitude to the people of Sri Lanka whose good sense, good citizenship and splendid co-operation were amply shown at dusk on the 17th of March, when an unusual silence fell throughout the country. In few countries, I may say, has such high standard of voluntary co-operation with its government been attained. It should be a matter of pride to everyone that a task of such magnitude has been accomplished by persuasion and not by compulsion."

In 1981, Mr. Peiris recalls, his task force consisted of 70,000, primarily Municipal workers in urban areas like Colombo. Today, the Census Dept. has enlisted the services of 115,000 volunteers, a large number of them University students. In 1981, they received for their labours, an allowance of Rs. 200. Today, they will get slightly over Rs. 1,000. 

The changes wrought after the 1981 census include the carving out of the Kilinochchi district. "Many new villages were also born after the census," Mr. Peiris recalled.

The first detailed scientific census in this country was in fact, conducted in 1871 under a British Registrar General. But it was a Ceylonese who produced a census report that would be held up as a model for future generations. Ponnambalam Arunachalam was the first Ceylonese to be appointed Registra General in 1887 and his census report is hailed as a classic, so much so that it is today preserved in the Harvard Library.

While questions on race and ethnicity have from earlier times been included in the census questionnnaire, the current census includes questions not found in the last survey. "We have put in questions on foreign migration, given that such a large number of Sri Lankans now work abroad. We have also asked about the disabled, with a separate form seeking detailed information having to be filled out. This will help in the formation of policy later on," Mr. Nanayakkara said.

Another interesting addition is the inclusion under the heading 'Ethnic groups' which sees Sri Lanka Chetty and Bharatha being listed for the first time. "This is in response to representations made during President J.R. Jayewardene's time," Mr. Nanayakkara said.

Housing also merits a more comprehensive survey this time around. "Whereas in 1981, while housing in the urban sector was covered 100 per cent, in the rural sector, it was only 10 per cent." This time, however, the target is 100 per cent in both sectors.

"Differentiating between urban and rural areas is a problem. Take the case of the Maharagama Pradeshiya Sabha, which is considered a rural area though in fact, it is quite urbanised. Many Pradeshiya Sabhas now have pockets in urban areas and we need to ascertain the population density, factors such as availability of electricity, pipe-borne water etc, to determine their present status."

A century ago, this mass of data would have been painstakingly sifted through and collated physically by the men and women who staffed the Registrar General's Department as it was known then. In our technologically advanced era, some 90 computers will handle this onerous task. "We will recruit casual hands to feed in the data and in about a week, the basic operational figures such as population, district-wise, will be ready. In about a month, more detailed data, population by sex, by religion, ethnic ratios will be available. The final analysis should be ready in about a year's time," he added.

So what will the final head count be? 19.4 million Sri Lankans, predicts the census chief.


History of census

Although no authentic records have been discovered of census taking in Sri Lanka during its ancient and medieval history ( from the 6th Century BC to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505), the existence of palm leaf registers in those days justifies the inference that detailed inventories of all that was required for taxation or administrative purposes had been made. 

The earliest enumeration of the people in Sri Lanka for which there is hard evidence, was in the year 1779 when the area was under Dutch rule. In 1779, the Dutch Governor Van der Graffe ordered an enumeration of inhabitants of the coastal areas and made an estimate of the total population of the island. That estimate was 1.5 million. 

In 1824, an enumeration of the population was carried out at the direction of the British Governor Sir Edward Barnes. Accordingly each province prepared a return, a process that took three years to complete. The report published in 1827, is the earliest record of an islandwide population count. The population was estimated at 850,000, but owing to the incompleteness in the coverage, it is believed that one million would be nearer the mark.

The first census in Sri Lanka to use modern techniques was the 1871 census under the superintendence of W.J. MacCarthy, the Registrar General. The 1871 census commenced a series of decennial censuses in Sri Lanka.

Five regular censuses were taken up to the year 1921, thus establishing a well-defined census-taking procedure. Unfortunately, because of the prevailing economic situation resulting from the Great Depression, the census of 1931 was confined to the capital city of Colombo and only a head count was taken for the rest of the country.

World War II caused the 1941 census to be postponed until 1946, and the 1951 census could not be taken until 1953, because of a paper shortage resulting from the Korean War. 

The decennial census due in 1961 could not be taken and was held instead in 1963. 

The next census taken in 1971 was the 11th census and is significant for two reasons: it was taken hundred years after the first census, and secondly it restored the tradition of taking the census in the year ending in one.

On 17th March 1981, the twelfth decennial census was taken, thus re-establishing Sri Lanka's census-taking tradition. 

(Extracts from the report submitted by W.A.A.S. Peiris, Director of Census and Statistics, and Thambiah Nadarajah to the 'Censuses of Asia and the Pacific' 1980 Round) 

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