Editorial: Population Figures

Census Numbers Hold Many Stories

The population totals of Census 2011 were released some years ago, and soon it will be time for another round of the decadal headcount of the country. In that sense, the 2011 numbers are slightly dated, but still, the bits and pieces hold many stories. When the first set of Census numbers are released, they always generate much interest, sometimes even gasps over how the state is growing, or not as was the case with 2011. In the current census figures, Sikkim’s falling fertility rate has hogged the limelight, convincing the State government to scrap the financial incentives it offered public servants for keeping their families “small”. But there are so many more stories that the numbers tell. Statistics are not always boring, provided someone dug out the human stories behind them. This should be a study that more people undertake in Sikkim. Sikkim’s population as of March 2011 has been counted at 6,07,688 people, recording a 12.36% growth since 2001. Since 1911, when the first proper Census operation was undertaken in Sikkim, only three decades, the last being 1941-51, have population growths been lower than this. The first Census of Sikkim was conducted in 1891 by the Political Officer. A decade later, in 1901, the West Bengal Census authorities of British India were deputed to carry out the task and it was probably only in 1911 that the Directorate of Census Operations brought the detailed methodology by which India does a head-count of all its people. In the decade of 1901-11, Sikkim’s population grew by 48.98%, the second-largest population spurt here since such counting was undertaken. In the next decade, 1911-21, the population fell by 7.05%, the only time it has done so. Population growth in Sikkim has shown marked variations, growing by little over 34% in the decade of 1931-41 and then almost grinding to replacement fertility-rate figure of 10.67% in 1931-41, creeping only slightly higher to 13.34% in 1941-51 and reaching 17.76% in 1951-61. It started rising from thereon, recording a nearly 30% population growth in 1961-71 and then hitting the record of 50.77% in 1971-81, dropping to nearly half this growth rate to 28.47% in 1981-91, rising five percentage points to 33.07% in 1991-2001 and then scaling back to its mid-Twentieth Century average of 12.36% growth in 2001-11. Census findings are important indicators of socioeconomic conditions of the areas they cover. Populations obviously grow beyond the traditional average either due to influx or improvements in health services, both of which are indicative of the quality of life and opportunities. Of course, in the recent past, our country has been working towards containing its population through family planning schemes launched on mission-mode, but the population figures of the past slightly more than a century are untouched by such efforts and should attract closer academic scrutiny. From the pattern of these figures, one could understand the history of Sikkim from the point of view of the lay people, who, although they have lived through Sikkim and its transitions, rarely find mention in the few records of even contemporary events. The nearly 50% growth in population between 1901 to 1911 should make for interesting analysis, coming as it does in a decade when the palace and the Political Office were in direct confrontation and also the time when British India was most interested in Sikkim, using it as the route to open Tibet. The change in how the State was administered must have obviously created new opportunities triggering new arrivals. What can also not be ignored is that if this 1911 exercise was also the first head-count Census and would hence have accounted for population segments not covered in the previous two Census operations carried out the Political Officer who had relied on feedback from the landlords, who could have had their own reasons to under-report the actual number of people in areas under their jurisdiction. The fall in population in 1911-21 should be even more fascinating for anyone interested in the people’s history of Sikkim. The population fell by 7.05% due to the Influenza pandemic (Spanish Flu) which spread through the world in the wake of World War-I. Sikkim did not fight the Great War, but an epidemic which was born from it claimed too many lives here as well. The pandemic broke out in 1918 and is believed to have killed 50 million people across the world. One still does not know how many died of it in Sikkim. The numbers must have been huge because healthcare services were too rudimentary here to have been able to deal with an alien sickness. Most of these deaths would have taken place in the two years between the outbreak and when the Census was carried out. This 7% fall in population immediately after a 50% growth must have scarred an entire generation. It deserves to be researched because it could explain many things about how Sikkim lived in those times. As an aside, there are also references to how the Younghusband Mission of 1904-05 brought the Foot & Mouth disease to Sikkim. Agriculture and animal husbandry were the only occupations in Sikkim at that time. Isn’t it important to research into how Sikkim resuscitated itself from that calamity? These exercises are important for Sikkim to understand its past better and may be even understand issues which attract passionate opinions in a different light.