Hiking up their saris to wind down narrow alleys split by open sewer trenches, Sunita Sherma and Nirmal Rautan are spending most of their afternoons this month in slums north of the city.
Part of an army of 2 million census workers, they knock on doors, ask questions, count heads, and get directions to their next location.
Conducting the largest demographic exercise in recent memory is a dirty, tiring, daunting job, but clearly, someone's got to do it.
"We approach this in a simple manner," says Ms. Sherma, an elementary school teacher at a nearby municipal school. "Sometimes people are suspicious, and sometimes they ask, 'Are we going to benefit from this, to get a home or a job? And we have to tell them, 'No, we are just coming to count.' "
Such modesty aside, the 2001 Indian Census is no mere headcount. By Feb. 28, enumerators will have visited nearly 20 million households in around 650,000 villages and 5,500 towns and cities.
With new questions and one census bureau coordinating all the work in India, it's a bigger exercise than even China's census taken in November.
The resulting information will not only cause most modern calculators to stagger, but will also present a picture of just how far India has come in some 53 years of independence. And it will give the clearest indication to date of what direction India might head in, both politically and socially, as it opens up its economy to the outside world.
Information beyond numbers
"The actual numbers aren't the significant factor, because someday India would have crossed the 1 billion line," says Murali Dhar Vemuri, a demographer at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
According to a United Nations agency estimate, India's population reached 1 billion in August 1999, but the Indian government observed that benchmark nine months later.
"The importance of this census," adds Mr. Vemuri, "is that it will suggest how much progress we have made as a country on social factors, such as the structure of the workforce, or the improvement of the status of women in society. It's those factors that make this an important exercise."
Education, income, or the growing role of women as wage-earners can all play significant roles in whether one family can improve its place in society, or just hold steady.
But at a macro-national level, each of these factors provides a crystal-ball view into the future, indicating the sorts of jobs India will be able to create, the kinds of outside investors it will attract, and the kind of lifestyle Indians of all castes, religions, and income levels can expect in the 21st century.
Perhaps it is for this reason that J.N. Verma, a science teacher at a secondary school in New Delhi, goes about his census task with such seriousness.
In the spacious apartment of Anil Sharma, the owner of a textile factory, Mr. Verma asks his usual litany of 23 questions, over the distant yapping of a lapdog locked up in another room. The list includes typical questions - such as name, age, age at marriage, religion, highest educational level attained - along with questions recently added to the census, including the number of disabled people in each household and the working status of women.
The closest Verma comes to breaking a smile is when he asks Mrs. Sharma, a housewife, if she has any productive form of employment, even household industries such as knitting. No, she answers.
"If the government gives you a job, would you work?" he gently humors her. Sharma, ever the genteel Brahmin, chides him back.
"I'd take it, but what would I do?" she says, with a twinkle in her eye. "I'm over 50 years old."
But in a nation where new estimates put nearly two-thirds of the population in rural areas, and where more than half of the population could be categorized as "the working poor," more strenuous census work is being done under starker conditions, in the villages and ramshackle urban slums called jhuggi-jhopris.
Consider the task of workers Sherma and Ms. Rautan in just finding hut No. 426. In this slum, the list of residences is listed in serial form, from 1, 2, 3, and onward. But the maze of huts wasn't built in such an organized fashion. Instead, it was constructed in stages, first with plenty of elbow room, and gradually new huts filled in the emptier spaces.
The result is a tight cluster of homes, along narrow footpaths, with hut No. 166 wedged between huts No. 92 and 372. When Sherma asks the residents how to find No. 426, a crowd of faces stares at her blankly. Only when she asks the occupant's name during the last census, a certain Nabiya Khan, does she encounter a sense of recognition.
"Of course," says one slum dweller. "He owns the newspaper stall out on the road." The resident helpfully provides directions to Mr. Khan's hut.
Khan, it turns out, has the ideal family in many Muslim eyes: four sons and a daughter. Now 38 years old, he married when he was 18, and when his wife was 12. His newspaper business has allowed him to expand the family hut to include a second floor, where his eldest son, Wakil lives with his wife.
"The saddest cases are the young widows with children," says Rautan, walking off to find the next hut, No. 427. "They have no male in the house, no wage earner, they live in poor conditions. It's difficult to see it everyday, but we go back."
More readers, more urbanites
India's most recent census, conducted in 1991, gave a striking picture of both the problems and the possibilities of the world's largest democratic nation.
*The population of India has grown by some 24 percent per decade for the past 30 years. In 1991, it had reached 846 million, and is expected to jump well past 1 billion this year.
*Literacy rates, too, have steadily risen over the past 50 years, from about 18 percent in 1951 to about 52.2 percent in '91. Yet the reading ability of women, at 39 percent, lagged far behind men at 64 percent.
*The population growth of urban areas, once at a rampant 46 percent growth rate in 1971, calmed down to about 26 percent in '91. But a closer look showed that larger cities like Bombay and New Delhi grew at a faster rate than medium and small cities. The population of New Delhi, for instance, grew from 6.2 million to 9.4 million between 1981 and '91, a 51.5 percent growth rate.
*With 18 official languages, and hundreds of local dialects that are as different from each other as Hungarian is from French, there was still no single language in 1991 that Indians shared. The most common language remains Hindi, but in 1991 only 39 percent of the population felt comfortable enough in that language to consider it a "mother tongue."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society