Identity and public policy

Synopsis:  Identity-based public policy may not be as effective as one based on a Universalist approach.


Political parties have been demanding caste-based census, i.e. to enumerate OBC’s as SC/STs are already counted. They argue that this data will lead to better evidence-based policy making for the weaker sections.

Read more: Caste based census in India – Explained, pointwise

For analysis of this argument, the author took the survey of states that have adopted different approaches for the development of backward classes. The author surveyed, Tamil Nadu which adopted caste-based mobilization (identity politics), and Kerala which adopted political programmes for ending deprivation through the social-democratic route, without resorting to identity politics.

What are the findings of the author on Tamil Nadu and Kerala?

The author’s survey is focused on three variables, adult literacy, infant mortality and consumption. It was found that:

Consumption: In absolute level, SCs of Kerala are better off than the SCs of Tamil Nadu on all three indicators. Scheduled Castes (SC) of Kerala are also better off than the general population of India.

Adult literacy: The gap between the general population and the SCs is greater in Tamil Nadu than it is in Kerala.

Women’s empowerment: Here, Kerala lags behind Tamil Nadu on labour force participation, the proportion of female legislators and judges and crimes against women.

Does India need Caste census?

Findings at all India level: It was found that for more than one indicator, the distance between the SCs and the general population is lower for the country as a whole. This can be analyzed better by the maximin principle.

According to it, that policy is better which maximises the position of the worst off in society. So going by this principle, Kerala (which does not resort to identity politics) will be chosen as a better-performing state.

In conclusion, Politics and not the availability of information drives public policy. So, instead of debating on the inclusion of caste (identity politics), the government can focus on improving public policy through its universalist approach (through the social-democratic route) like Kerala.


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