The much debated topic in India has been the Caste Census. Is there really a need for a caste census in India? Well first of all, what is caste census? Census is a term used for numbering of people, valuation of their estate for the purpose of imposing taxes.
Caste is a social reality which determines one’s social status and the limits of the social relations and also opportunities for advancement in the life of an individual. The 2011 Indian census, is considering collection of caste data. On one hand we say that India is growing and becoming a developed nation while on the other we are agreeing to the caste based census.
What is Caste Census?
Caste Census is the demand to include the caste-wise tabulation of India’s population in the upcoming exercise.
Caste, a formidable cultural foundation of the Indian society, was last included in the Census of India back in 1931. At that time the exercise was performed by the British.
While India publishes separate data on Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), since the first exercise in independent India in 1951, the Census does not include data on other castes.
Why the demand and what will be the impact?
The demand for a caste census arises from the fact that there is no documented data on different castes within the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in India, and other classes.
The demand to include caste in Census is not new. The debate heats up almost every decade in the run up to the activity. The UPA-II government led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave in to the demands and conducted a caste census in 2010 along with the socio-economic census.
However, there were discrepancies found in data from almost 25 percent of the households part of the exercise. The public data eventually released gave numbers of different castes in India but not the population-wise data as was the demand.
While it is said that caste was removed from census activity with a view that it promotes divisiveness, advocates of its inclusion believe that the activity will be a pro-poor exercise which will help plan better and more targeted welfare schemes in the country. As pointed out be CM Kumar earlier in 2021, “If we know the exact number, we can work towards their betterment.”
Some proponents also suggest that a Caste Census will also help reservation policy makers have a more accurate idea of the affirmative action needed. While this data is currently available for SC and ST population, the OBC population is estimated widely as per the number noted by the Mandal Commission at 52%.
WHY THE DEMAND FOR AN OBC CENSUS?
Arguments for taking a count of India’s castes range from the practical to the political. Most advocates say that not knowing the numbers of the various OBC communities prevents the creation of targeted interventions for their welfare. Pushing for a caste count, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had said earlier this year, “The caste-based census must be done at least once. Through it, they can gain benefits from schemes. If we know the exact number, we can work towards their betterment.”
The need for knowing caste numbers is strenghtened by the extensive reservation system in India, some experts say. When up to 50 per cent of government jobs and seats in educational institutions are reserved for the various castes — in some cases, even more than 50 per cent — not knowing the number of people who are members of such communities is a serious policy blindspot, it is argued.
In fact, it is especially for the sake of OBCs themselves — and they benefit they may hope to derive from quota-based affirmative actions — that proponents say a caste-based count should be taken. Reports say that while specific castes have been notified as OBCs at the Centre, and with states also maintaining their separate OBC lists, there is an imbalance in terms of the communities that have actually benefited from quotas. It is said that a handful of communities out of the thousands on the central list of OBCs have gained most from the 27 per cent reservation that came in as a result of Mandal Commission recommendations.
The Centre has appointed the Justice Rohini Commission to “examine the extent of inequitable distribution of benefits of reservation among the castes or communities included in the broad category of Other Backward Classes… included in the Central List”. But the panel, which is mandated to go into a scheme for sub-categorisation of OBCs, is yet to submit its report.
WHY IS THE CENTRE AGAINST COUNTING CASTES?
In its replies to questions in Parliament on the demand for including caste information in Census 2021, the Centre has said that, the Union of India after independence, decided as a matter of policy not to enumerate caste-wise population other than SCs and STs”.
Along with justifications that cite national unity and harmony among the various castes, the government has also pointed at procedural issues. In response to a demand from the Maharashtra Assembly that caste be included in Census 2021, the Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner Vivek Joshi reportedly said that “the enumeration of OBCs, SEBCs will adversely affect the integrity of Census exercise and hence it has not been taken up in 2021 Census”.
“As per the central list, total number of OBCs in the country is 6,285, while the number goes up to 7,200 if the list is prepared by the states, and Union Territories are taken into account. Since the people use their clan, gotra, sub-castes and caste names interchangeably, and the due to the phonetic similarities in the names, it may lead to the misclassification of the castes,” Joshi told the Maharashtra lawmakers.
The UPA government that was in power at the Centre, too, had underlined “vexed questions” vis-a-vis a caste census with its Home Minister P Chidambaram telling Parliament that “some states have a list of OBCs and a sub-set called Most Backward Classes [and]… there are certain open-ended categories in the lists such as orphans and destitute children… 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”.
SO, IS THERE NO DATA ON OBCS IN INDIA?
Well, the answer is not so simple. Faced with a clamour for a caste census in 2010, the then Congress-led UPA government had conceded the demand. However, the caste enumeration was not done as part of Census 2011, but a separate Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) was conducted in 2011, which also gleaned data on caste. However, that data has not been made publicly available by the Centre.
In a reply in Parliament earlier this year, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai had said that “the SECC 2011 data excluding the caste data have been finalised and published… [and] the raw caste data has been provided to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for classification and categorisation”.
However, in the same reply, he added that the ministry has informed that “there is no proposal to classify and categorise the raw caste data”. Which is to say that there are no plans to share caste numbers. Demands for caste to be included in the census are typically amplified at the end of each decade when plans are taken up for another census. In 2018, the then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had said that Census 2021 will include a caste count, but the government, as is clear from its recent statements, has now decided against that.
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