India’s next decadal headcount in 2021 will be carried out on a mobile application, Union home minister Amit Shah said on Monday, as he floated the idea of a unique multi-purpose identity card for citizens that could double up as a voter identity document, permanent account number or even passport.

Speaking at a ceremony in New Delhi, the minister also said that updating the national population register (NPR), which will happen simultaneously with the census, will be completely digital and help in fighting crime, plugging subsidy leakages and promoting gender equality.

“Why can’t we have just one card for all utilities like Aadhaar, passport, bank account, driving licence, voter card? There should be a system that all data should be put together in a single card,” Shah said after laying the foundation stone of a new building of the Registrar General of India in the national capital.

The minister clarified that the government had no scheme at present to introduce a multipurpose identity card. “But this is a possibility,” he added.

The census mobile app will comprise about 60 questions, from the amenities available in a household, source of drinking water and power, to religion, occupation, and languages spoken by the family. The deadline for the census, the 16th such exercise since 1872, is March 1, 2021.

“It will be a transformation from paper census to a digital census,” Shah said.

Only a handful of countries have done away with paper records for the census. India, Vietnam and Swaziland are first to take this leap. In the latter countries, census officials had trained graduate students for about a year to double up as enumerators. India will be using an estimated 2.7 million enumerators for the census, which is expected to cost ~12,000 crore and will be carried out in 16 languages.

Shah said the 2021 census data will help in planning, especially for development initiatives and welfare schemes, and it will be a ‘Jan Bhagidari’ (people’s participation) exercise.

“The utilisation of census data is multidimensional and will be a significant contribution to the nation’s progress,” Shah said. He added that the data will help in demarcating boundaries of municipal wards, assemblies and Lok Sabha constituencies.

Recording data directly into a mobile phone is likely to speed up the process of data collection and analysis. “The results will be available almost immediately,” registrar general of India Vivek Joshi said. “In contrast, 2011 census — where data was collected on paper — data took almost seven years to publish,” Joshi added.

The newly developed app will be fed into the phone of government school teachers who will double up as census enumerators, said senior government officials who did not want to be named.

If it becomes a reality, the multipurpose card will be the first document to be issued under the 1955 Citizenship Act, which empowers the Centre to compulsorily register every citizen and issue multi-purpose national identity cards.

To activate this plan, the government would first update the NPR and then ask people in this register to establish their citizenship.

The idea of a multipurpose card was first proposed by then deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani in 1999 but was subsequently shelved as governments focused on expanding Aadhaar, the unique 12-digit biometric identity project. Countries such as Singapore already use a multi-purpose identity card.

The census is conducted in two stages. In the first, to be carried out next year, enumerators will have to go house-to-house to record the amenities in each household. This is called the household schedule. The headcount will be carried out about six months later, in early 2021.

While the census and the NPR — a register of residents of India — will have some common data points like name, date of birth, father’s name, the NPR also asks for a completely different set of data.

For instance, it will ask people to also give their Aadhaar, passport, mobile and income tax PAN number and number of Electors Photo Identity card.

There are two crucial differences between the census and NPR processes. First, the census doesn’t ask for individual identity details, and at the end of the day, is a macro exercise. The NPR, on the other hand, is designed to collect identity details of every individual.

The second is that census data is protected by a confidentiality clause. The government has committed that it will not reveal information received from an individual for the headcount.

Shah’s comments on Monday come in the backdrop of his proposal for a countrywide National Register of Citizens, which was recently completed in Assam and was aimed at weeding out illegal immigrants. Officials said the NPR would serve as the mother database to verify citizenship if a nationwide NRC is carried out later.

Shah also floated the idea of automatically linking birth and death register with voter rolls. “Why can’t we link the two and ensure that voters list is automatically updated?” Shah asked.

The home minister used the example of the Ujjwala scheme, under which subsidised gas cylinders are given to below-poverty-line families, to underline the importance of data in shaping welfare policy. “In 2014 we started thinking differently. Our government used the 2011 census data to understand who all need gas cylinders and where they were living. We made a digital map,” he added.

He also said the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” scheme, which aims at ending female infanticide and boosting female literacy, was accomplished by efficient targeting of awareness campaigns, made possible by accurate census data. As many as 21 welfare schemes will depend on the census, the minister added.

“Using technology for collecting census data is a great idea, but enumerators should be trained adequately. The Indian census data is very respected and is used by the government for shaping schemes and by academicians, and the quality of data should be maintained,” Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, said.

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