Caste based census in India – Explained, pointwise


At the recently concluded Parliament session, there was a demand to lift the 50% cap on reservation imposed by the Supreme Court through the legislative route. With the 2021 Census coming up, several political parties have demanded a nationwide caste census.

On the other hand, the Ministry of Home Affairs has said that the Government of India has decided not to enumerate the caste-wise population other than SCs and STs in Census 2021.

The proponents of caste census argue that a Socio-Economic Caste Census is the only way to make a case to breach the 50% cap on the reservation and rationalise the reservation matrix in the country. While there are merits to this argument, the state should be extremely cautious of this move.

Caste Census in Colonial Time
  • The First Census conducted in 1871 included questions about caste.
  • This data was then used to divide and conquer India.
  • It first privileged Brahmins as interpreters of Indian culture and then targeted them as the root of caste-based oppression and inequality.
  • This classification was also a source of anti-Brahmin movements of 20th century
What kind of caste data is published in the Census post-independence?
  • Every Census in independent India from 1951 to 2011 has published data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but not on other castes.
  • Before that, every Census until 1931 had data on caste. However, in 1941, caste-based data was collected but not published.
  • Hence, in the absence of such a census, there is no proper estimate for the population of OBCs.
  • The Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population at 52%. Some other estimates have been based on National Sample Survey data.
About Socio-Economic Caste Census(SECC)

The Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was conducted in 2011. It was the largest exercise of the listing of castes and has the potential of finding inequalities at a broader level.

  • Socio-Economic Caste Census(SECC) was conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in rural areas and the Ministry of Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation in urban areas.
  • The SECC data excluded caste data and was published by the two ministries in 2016.
  • The raw caste data was handed over to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment,
  • The ministry formed an Expert Group under former NITI Aayog Vice-Chairperson Arvind Pangaria for the classification and categorisation of data.
  • However, only the details of the economic conditions of the people in rural and urban households were released. The caste data has not been released till now.
Read more: A caste census will serve no clear worthy purpose
Difference between SECC and Census
The Census provides a picture of the Indian populationSECC is a tool to identify beneficiaries of state support
Census falls under the Census Act of 1948 and all data are considered confidential All the personal information given in the SECC is open for use by Government departments to grant and/or restrict benefits to households.
Rationale behind conducting caste census
  1. Rationalise reservation:
    • Many have argued that an SECC would be the best way to rationalise reservation based on data and make a strong case for breaching India’s reservation cap.
      • For example, The census of 2011 had 19,569 entries on languages. These entries were then rationalized into 1369 mother tongues. These were then classified into 22 scheduled and 99 non-scheduled languages. So, the collection of caste data will lead rationalise reservation.
    • Since job and education quotas are based on caste, this will help in evidence-based policymaking. The current policies are based on the last caste census, which was conducted in 1931.
    • Further, this census can help the government in identifying the most benefited section and reduce their share in the overall reservation to provide an opportunity to others.
    • Also, Most estimates show the OBC population to be above 40%. This is much greater than the current reservation, which stands at 27%. The caste census will provide the exact proportion of OBC population.
  2. A caste census would actually bring forward the large number of issues that any democratic country needs to pay attention to. For instance, this census will reveal information regarding caste-based marginalisation, deprivation, the kind of jobs pursued by a caste, etc.
    • Caste census will give authentic information regarding the socio-economic condition and education status of various castes.
  3. Better targeting of Government welfare schemes: The courts in India have often emphatically said that it is important to have adequate data regarding the reservation. So, the caste census is nothing but the collection of data that is necessary for any democratic policymaking.
  4. Break the myths associated with castes: The caste census will reveal the actual data on castes and remove ambiguities associated with the caste. For instance,
    • In Karnataka, there were claims that among the castes, the Lingayats are the most numerous. So the census can reveal the true information on that.
  5. Recommendation from the Sachar committee: Sachar committee was formed to examine the socio-economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India. In its report, the committee mentioned that the availability of data on religion was useful in highlighting the relative deprivation of minorities. So, similar data on caste is also desirable to identify vulnerable sections within castes.
Read more: Socio-Economic and Caste Census: A Need for reforms
Challenges linked to conducting caste census
  1. Reservation tussles:
    1. Reservation is going to cater only to a small proportion of those who are entitled to it. Further, there is also some debate that the reservation policy in India invariably led to the growth of elites among castes and communities. So, the caste census along with reservation might favour elites among castes.
    2. There is a possibility that caste-based reservations will lead to heartburn among some sections and spawn demands for larger or separate quotas. For instance, Patels, Gujjars, Jats and other castes are demanding reservations. The caste census might induce more such demands in future.
  2. The caste census will give rise to caste division. : As India seek to eliminate and weaken the notion of caste, a caste census would only strengthen it.
  3. Collection of caste data is not easy: Some sections of people believe that Caste is a very important source of privilege and advantage in our country. On the other hand, some sections of people feel disadvantaged by revealing caste-based information. So, the naming and counting of caste is a difficult thing in India. For instance, the same caste is spelt in different ways in different states.
Suggestions to improve condition of vulnerable sections
  1. Instead of going behind the caste based census, the government can subclassify the Backward Classes like in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal etc. This will provide the benefit to intended beneficiaries.
    • Since the government has already appointed Justice G Rohini Panel on Sub-categorisation of OBCs.  The Panel has to fast pace the sub-classification process.
  2. Reservation is one among many considerations which affect competition among candidates. So, the 50% limit can be extended to the proportion of backward classes population in our country.
  3. Use technologies to assess the caste date on SECC: The government can use technologies like Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to assess the SECC data and condense them into meaningful categories. After that, the government can reveal some important caste-based information. This will provide the necessary time to analyse the need for a caste census.

A caste census without data integrity would be much worse. The data of caste censuses have always been disputed, probably due to the contest of several vested interests in accepting the data.

However, the government must go beyond caste and work for the upliftment of illiterate, marginalised and poor sections of the population. The government should give more importance to economic division, education, health etc

Source: The Hindu

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