Date : 07/10/2023
Relevance: GS Paper 2 - Governance - Census
Keywords: SECC, Sachar Committee, Rohini Commission, Caste Myth, National Integration
The recently released caste survey data by the Bihar government has once again brought the issue of caste census to the forefront. While the Census of India has been publishing data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, there has been no estimate for the population of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and other groups.
History of Caste-based Census
- The origin of the Census in India dates back to the colonial exercise of 1881.
- Caste-based data collection has a well-established historical presence in India, extending until the year 1931. Subsequently, after 1951, a deliberate choice was made to discontinue the collection of caste-related information, aiming to shift away from a potentially divisive approach and instead foster national unity. Nevertheless, in light of evolving socio-political circumstances and the growing demand for precise data, there has been a resurgence in the push for a caste census.
What is the Caste Census and Caste Survey?
- Census: A census is a comprehensive process of collecting, organizing, analyzing, and disseminating demographic, economic, and social information about all individuals within a country during a specific time period. In India, a national census is carried out every ten years.
- Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been included in every Indian census conducted between 1951 and 2011, while data on other castes were not included in the published reports. Prior to 1931, caste information was collected and reported in every census. As a result, there have been calls for the conducting of a Socio-Economic Caste Census in 2021.
- Caste Census: The Socio-Economic Caste Census was conducted in independent India for the first time in 2011, although the findings were not publicly released. The most recent comprehensive data available for all castes dates back to the 1931 census.
- Caste Survey: Due to the exclusive authority of the central government to conduct a census, several state governments, such as Bihar and Odisha, have undertaken Socio-Economic Caste Surveys to assess the social and economic status of various caste groups. The recently released Bihar caste survey serves as a notable example of these efforts.
What is the Significance of the Caste Census?
- Benefits in Policy Making: Conducting a caste census will generate comprehensive data that can empower policymakers to formulate more effective policies and strategies for the upliftment of marginalized communities. It will establish a foundation for evidence-based policy development in a society marked by exclusion, discrimination, and marginalization based on group identities.
- Rationalizing Reservation: The existing policies are based on the 1931 caste census data. A new caste census can enable the government to identify the most privileged groups and adjust their share of reservations, creating opportunities for other caste groups.
- Improved Targeting of Government Welfare Schemes: Data from the socio-economic caste census can facilitate the precise targeting of government welfare programs toward the most marginalized segments of society. For example, in Bihar, where the population has increased significantly, accurate data can ensure that subsidies and benefits reach the eligible population, addressing issues like food inflation.
- Relevance of Caste in Indian Society: While data has been collected for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, religions, and linguistic profiles, there has been no profiling of all castes in India since 1931. Given the importance of caste in Indian society, caste-related data can provide insights into the socio-economic status of various caste groups.
- Addressing Inequalities: Widespread disparities in wealth, resources, and education have resulted in limited purchasing power for the majority of Indians. A caste census can help address these issues through democratic, scientific, and objective means, promoting social justice.
- Constitutional Mandate: The Indian Constitution supports the conduct of a caste census. Article 340 mandates the appointment of a commission to examine the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes and make recommendations for government action.
- Supporting Various Commissions' Objectives: Data on caste is essential for fulfilling the objectives of various commissions, such as the Sachar Committee, which examined the socio-economic status of the Muslim community, and the Justice Rohini Commission, tasked with sub-categorizing Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
- Addressing Intersectionality: Caste intersects with other factors like gender, religion, and region, leading to compounded disadvantages. A caste census can uncover these intersections, enabling more nuanced policy approaches that target multiple dimensions of marginalization.
- Dispelling Caste Myths: The caste census will provide accurate data on caste populations, dispelling ambiguities and myths. For example, it can clarify claims regarding the most populous castes, such as the case of Lingayats in Karnataka.
What are the Arguments against the Caste Census?
- Caste-Based Political Mobilization: The data could potentially be exploited by political parties for their own narrow political objectives, fostering caste-based mobilization in the country. While India aims to eliminate and weaken caste divisions, conducting a caste census might inadvertently strengthen them, with each caste group vying for a share of power at the expense of administrative efficiency.
- Risk to National Integration: There is a legitimate concern that counting castes may solidify or entrench caste identities, potentially impeding the growth of national integration. Consequently, many years after the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), a significant portion of its data remains either unreleased or partially disclosed.
- Increased Demands for Reservations: A caste census could lead to heightened demands for larger or separate reservation quotas. For instance, castes like Patels, Gujjars, and Jats have already sought reservations, and the census might stimulate additional requests in the future. This could exert pressure on the Supreme Court to reconsider the 50% reservation ceiling.
- Challenges in Collecting Caste Data: Compiling caste numbers in India is a complex task due to variations in caste spellings across different states. Additionally, a caste that is considered extremely backward in one state may not be classified the same way in another state.
- Potential Stigmatization: The disclosure of caste identities may expose individuals to stigmatization or discrimination based on preconceived stereotypes associated with specific castes. This could discourage honest responses and undermine the accuracy of the survey.
- Need for Sub-Categorization of Backward Classes: Instead of pursuing a caste-based census, the government can opt for the sub-classification of Backward Classes, similar to the approaches adopted in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and West Bengal. This approach would ensure that the intended beneficiaries receive the benefits more effectively. It's worth noting that the government has already established the Justice G. Rohini Panel for the purpose of sub-categorizing Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The panel should expedite this sub-classification process.
- Utilizing Technology for Caste Data Analysis in SECC: The government can harness modern technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to analyze the caste data collected during the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC). This technological approach can help streamline and categorize the data in a meaningful manner, making it more actionable.
- Preliminary Socio-Anthropological Study: In addition to conducting a full-fledged census, an independent preliminary socio-anthropological study can be carried out at the state and district levels. This study would aim to identify and document all sects and sub-castes present within the population, providing valuable insights without the extensive scope of a complete census.
With every passing day and increasing social awareness, the urgency to do away with the caste system is being sharply felt. Dr. BR Ambedkar stated that if India had to attain a place of pride among the comity of nations, caste would have to be annihilated first.
The most important thing is improving existing databases is more crucial to this than getting into the debate of whether to do a caste count or not. Accurate and timely data is central to India’s effort to tackle poverty. Poor data diminishes the efforts to design welfare programs.
The 21st century is the right time to solve India’s caste question, which would otherwise extract a heavy price, not just sociologically, but also politically and economically, and make us fall behind in the development index.
Source - The Indian Express / Sansad TV