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Vast India census may help direct aid to poorest

By Katy Daigle

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 12 2011 4:45 a.m. MST

"There's a very wide range of socio-economic data being collected," touching on literacy and education levels, work and fertility, marriage and migration, New Delhi census director Varsha Joshi said. There are 15 official languages apart from English to note, and myriad religions represented. New categories for disability and "third-gender" are part of an effort to make the count more accurate and culturally relevant.

"All these together ... They give a complete social picture of the country," Joshi said.

The disabled now have eight categories to qualify their condition. Prostitutes will be listed as having "other" employment rather than as "beggars."

The transgender community, which has long hoped for more social acceptance, is being given an "other" option under gender apart from "male" and "female." The results will give India a firm count for its "third-gender" hijra community — the origins of which go back millennia to a time when transsexuals, eunuchs and gays held a special place in society backed by Hindu myths of their power to grant fertility. Today, transsexuals are subjected to harsh discrimination in housing, employment and society, though last year they were granted their request to register to vote as "others."

Having a third-gender option in the census "was a demand from the community," Joshi said. "They wanted their numbers to be counted."

India's president, the government, religious leaders and NGOs for the homeless and disabled have all urged people to stand and be counted so their needs might be better met.

Officials are even counting foreigners including sailors docked in Indian ports and inmates locked up at Indian prisons such as Pakistani Ajmal Kasab, who is sentenced to death for his role in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

But there are some who won't make the roster — the children of unwed mothers.

Authorities deemed it too culturally insensitive to have their census workers ask unmarried women if they have kids — a situation rare enough, they say, to be numerically insignificant. In India, arranged marriage is still largely the norm, and nearly 45 percent of girls are married by the time they're 18, according to the last census in 2001.

Another topic deemed too sensitive for this year's census was that of caste, which will be surveyed separately later this year as officials try to understand how deeply society still reflects the millennia-old Hindu custom dividing people in a strict social hierarchy based on their family's traditional livelihood and ethnicity.

Census officials worried the sensitive subject of caste in multicultural and secular India could upset the results of the population count.

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