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India is launching a new census in which every person aged over 15 will be photographed and fingerprinted to create a biometric national database.
The government will then use the information to issue identity cards.
Officials will spend a year classifying India’s population of around 1.2 billion people according to gender, religion, occupation and education.
The exercise, conducted every 10 years, faces big challenges, not least India’s vast area and diversity of cultures.
Census officials must also contend with high levels of illiteracy and millions of homeless people - as well as insurgencies by Maoists and other rebels which have left large parts of the country unsafe.
President Pratibha Patil was the first person to be listed, and appealed to fellow Indians to follow her example “for the good of the nation”.
“Everyone must participate and make it successful,” she said in Delhi.
This is India’s 15th census and the first time a biometric element has been included.
“India has been conducting a national census since 1872,” the man leading the exercise C Chandramouli told the AFP news agency. “Nothing - floods, droughts, even wars - has been able to stop it.
“The trick is to get things right the first time. There is no question of a re-census.”
Over the next year, some 2.5 million census officials will visit households in more than 7,000 towns and 600,000 villages.
The officials, many of them teachers and local officials, will first begin the process of house listing - which records information on homes.
This count will, for the first time, also attempt to gather information on the use of the internet and the availability of drinking water and toilets in households.
India’s Home Minister P Chidambaram: “This exercise must succeed”
The physical count of residents will take place from 9-28 February 2011.
The mammoth registration exercise will stretch over 11 months, consume more than 11 million tonnes of paper, and cost 60bn rupees ($1.3bn;