THE CONTEXT: In August 2021, the Maharashtra government has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking directions to the Union of India to disclose the raw caste data of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) collected as part of Socio-Economic Caste Census-2011 (SECC). Also, there are demands by many political parties to conduct a caste census as part of the normal decennial census. But the response of the Central Government has not been positive. In this background, this article examines whether India needs a comprehensive caste census.
What is a Census?: Census is the process of collecting the demographic, social, and economic data of the population of a country within a specific time period. In India, the Census is conducted, every 10 years by the Registrar General and the Census Commissioner, Ministry of Home Affairs, as per the provisions of The Census Act 1948. It is conducted in two phases: House Listing and Housing Census and Population Enumeration. The first synchronous census in India was carried out by the colonial administration in 1881.
Why Census?: The data collected through the census are used for administration, planning, and policymaking as well as management and evaluation of various programs by the government, NGOs, researchers, commercial and private enterprises, etc. Census data is also used for demarcation of constituencies and allocation of representation to Parliament, State Legislative Assemblies, and the local bodies. Researchers and demographers use census data to analyze growth and trends of population and make projections. The census data is also important for business houses and industries for strengthening and planning their business for penetration into areas, which had hitherto remained, uncovered.
What is an SECC?: SECC is a study of the socio-economic status of rural and urban households. It allows the ranking of households based on predefined parameters. It counts three aspects: social, economic, and caste. SECC 2011 was conducted by three separate authorities but under the overall coordination of the Department of Rural Development in the Government of India. Census in Rural Area has been conducted by the Department of Rural Development (DoRD). Census in Urban areas is under the administrative jurisdiction of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, now Ministry of Urban Affairs and Poverty Alleviation. Caste census has been under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs: Registrar General of India (RGI) and Census Commissioner of India. The Government has not yet published the caste-wise break of the Indian population although the socio-economic factors are used for policy and planning purposes.
What is the difference between the Census 2011 and the Socio-Economic Census 2011?: Both were conducted at a different time frame. Census 2011 (population enumeration) was conducted during the period 9th to 28th February 2011. Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 was largely carried out in 2011 and 2012 with a few states taking enumeration and verification in 2013 also. Personal data given in the population census is confidential. On the contrary, all the personal information given in the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) is open for use by government departments to grant and/ or restrict benefits to households.
What is a Caste Census ?: A caste census means recording each caste and the number of people in each caste. In India, till 1931 all castes were counted. But since 1951, only the SCs and STs have been included in the decennial census. To this metric, when the social and economic factors are added, it becomes an SECC. For the purpose of this write-up, the caste census includes social and economic factors also.
WHY THE DEMAND FOR A CASTE CENSUS?
Evidence-Based Policy Making: The caste census will provide hard data to formulate affirmative action and the development of policies. The last time the castes were counted and published was in 1931. The knowledge of exact number of OBCs and other castes is a must to devise policies and programs for their welfare.
To understand disparity: According to a 2020 Oxfam report, the top 10 percent of India’s population owns 74.3 percent of the total wealth, while the middle 40 percent and the bottom 50 percent owns 22.9 percent and a mere 2.8 percent, respectively. However, this provides us with little insight into Indian society. We need to know who constitutes the top 10 percent and so on, to formulate meaningful policies. We need to know who is lagging behind and for what reasons.
The close link between caste and economic prosperity: According to a 2018 research study titled “Wealth Ownership and Inequality in India: A Socio-Religious Analysis” conducted by Savitribai Phule Pune University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, upper-caste Hindus own around 41 percent of the national assets; OBCs own 31 percent while Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes own 7.6 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. It is evident that distribution is based mainly on centuries of inequality, exploitation, privileges, and opportunities.
To fulfill the Constitutional mandate: Art 340 of the Constitution deals with setting up of a Commission to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes and to make recommendations thereof. Thus, a comprehensive database of OBCs is required.
To overcome the 50% barrier in reservation: The Indira Sawhney judgment 1992 although put a cap on reservation as 50%, it also provided for exceeding this limit in various circumstances. For instance, TN has provided reservation up to 69% after enumeration of castes although it is under judicial scrutiny.
Regional Politics: It might result in a situation of Mandal II, giving a new lease of life to many regional parties which otherwise are struggling to find a positive agenda to challenge the BJP that has dominated Indian electoral politics for the last one decade. The OBC data, if available, will help political parties to create a new vote bank among the socially and economically deprived sections in OBCs.
For a casteless society: Scholars point out that in order to abolish caste, it is essential to first abolish caste-derived privileges. To do that, the state must first map castes and their socio-economic status privileges/deprivations.
Census data: Since the census already documents huge amounts of data including religions, languages, socioeconomic status, and Dalits and Adivasis, why not count OBCs too.
Sub Categorizationwithin castes: Some castes within the OBCs, SCs and STs have been held to be cornering most of the benefits from the affirmative action policies. A caste census will be the first step to address this issue.
WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST A CASTE CENSUS?
Administrative Challenges: There is a central list of OBCs and a state-specific list of OBCs. Some states do not have a list of OBCs; some states have a list of OBCs and a sub-set called Most Backward Classes. Names of some castes are found in both the list of Scheduled Castes and the list of OBCs. Scheduled Castes converted to Christianity or Islam are also treated differently in different states. The status of a migrant from one state to another and the status of children of inter-caste marriage, in terms of caste classification, are also vexed questions. Owing to these and other reasons, the Centre has filed an affidavit in the SC detailing the problems in conducting a caste census. (Read Ahead)
Reinforcing Caste Consciousness: Opponents of a caste census argue that such a headcount will harden caste identities, lead to social fragmentation and caste enmities and serve to weaken the religious identity.
Political Considerations: Political parties, especially the ruling party at the Centre fear that a caste headcount could disrupt their carefully crafted electoral strategy when states like UP is going to polls in early 2002. A caste census can stir up issues that may throw up unwelcome surprises to the political parties.
Historical Lessons: Following the conclusion of the 1931 Census, J H Hutton, a celebrated anthropologist, and the then census commissioner is reported to have recommended that all future census operations should desist from collecting data on castes. Many anomalies like confusing caste with religion, region etc., persisted through all the census operations that aimed at collecting data on caste. The caste was made optional in the 1941 census and whatever data was collected was not published. Even the 2011 SECC data is replete with many flaws and inconsistencies.
Multiple meanings of caste: Noted social scientist AM Shah says that there are five words for caste in Gujarati—jat, jaati, jnati, varna andkaum. Each of them has multiple connotations, depending on the context they are used in. As a result, while an endogamous group is referred to as a caste in some context, traditional association with an occupation also comes to represent a caste. Gotra too is seen as connoting caste. In certain contexts, surnames too can represent caste. There is no consensus on the working definition of caste, census enumerators in all past operations ended up also recording names of castes that were either vague or non-existent.
WHY IS THE CENTRE NOT IN FAVOUR OF A CASTE CENSUS
The Centre’s position is based on two major aspects. One, it says the decision not to conduct a caste census is a “conscious policy” and the Supreme Court must not enter the executive domain of policymaking. Second, the Government cites the administrative, operational and logistical challenges in conducting a caste census. It says that the population census is not the ideal instrument for the collection of caste details as it would compromise the integrity of the Census data and the population count will be distorted. Also, the issue with respect to Central List and State List of OBCs and orphans and destitute create further hurdles. In many states, the SC converted to Christianity is listed as OBC. In such a case, the enumerator has to check both the lists which is beyond his/her capacity as they are part-time and only trained for 6-7 days before commencing the exercise. The preparatory work for census 2021 has commenced three years back whose progress has been limited due to pandemics. The questions are also finalized and inclusion of any additional question are not feasible. Thus, including the OBC count in upcoming census is not practical.
The Census Bureau collects racial data in accordance with guidelines provided by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and these data are based on self-identification. The 1997 OMB standards permit the reporting of more than one race. An individual’s response to the race question is based upon self-identification. The data on race were derived from answers to the question on race that was asked of individuals in the United States. The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as “American Indian” and “White.” People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.OMB requires five minimum categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Information on race is required for many federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks. The Census Bureau has a long history of conducting research to improve questions and data on race and ethnicity.
WHAT SHOULD BE THE WAY FORWARD?
Demand of equity: Clubbing caste census with normal census can’t do justice to the cause of equity within OBCs. Any such exercise must also collect detailed information on economic status of various sub-castes, which is not possible in the census.
Counting castes later: Given the huge problems in coupling the caste census with the decennial census, it will be prudent to conduct it at a later date with effective preparation.
Consensus on Caste: An expert panel of sociologists and anthropologists be tasked to come up with a working definition of caste. The expert panel thus constituted, will have to go through all the names(as part of central and state list of OBCs), see the characteristics, and then arrive at a working definition of who are the other backward classes. Enumerators will then have to be trained accordingly.
Data integration from other sources: Various government surveys such as the ones conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) collect data on a broad share of SCs, STs, and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the population.
Follow a bottom up approach: States need to prepare an updated caste registry through an exhaustive survey with the local bodies in the lead. The local bodies need to be provided funds, functionaries, and training for this purpose. The enumeration by local bodies and verification by the Gram Sabha can reduce errors. Further, re-verification and removal of errors be done at Block/District level.
Responsive policy making: Policy of government does not operate in vacuum and is directed to problem-solving. The problem of inequality, caste discrimination, misdirected affirmative action, etc. need to be addressed by the government. Taking shelter under a policy decision made before 70 years is not responsive policy making.
CONCLUSION: Although conducting a caste census whether along with census or as a stand-alone exercise has many challenges, but that must not prevent the government from not conducting it. The ideal way is to carry out the exercise after preparing the groundwork in a comprehensive manner by incorporating the lessons learned from the SECC 2011. India does have the intellectual, scientific, technical, and technological infrastructure to carry out such an exercise which is the need of the hour. Indeed, it requires “ sabka prayas and sabka viswas” to bring about “ sabka vikas”.
- “To remove caste consciousness from Indian society, it is necessary to first identify them”. In this context critically analyse the need for a caste census in India.
- Identify the constitutional, political, welfaristic and social motivations behind the demand for a caste census.
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