Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday assured the Lok Sabha that the government would soon take a decision on the Opposition demand for a caste-based census.
“I am aware of the views of the Members of Parliament belonging to all sections. I assure you that the Cabinet will take a decision shortly,” Dr. Singh said in a brief statement.
The statement put at ease agitated Opposition members, particularly Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh, Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav.
The three leaders and other Opposition members were ruffled over Home Minister P. Chidambaram's reply to the debate on census. He said there were difficulties in conducting a caste-based census and the government would keep in mind the members' views.
As soon as the Minister concluded his reply, which was punctuated by interruptions from the Opposition benches, and the House was adjourned to meet again at 2.30 p.m., the three leaders approached the Prime Minister, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and leader of the House Pranab Mukherjee. They were seen talking to them, trying to elicit some kind of an assurance on their demand. They also held a meeting with Mr. Mukherjee separately, when BJP's deputy leader Gopinath Munde was also present.
When Dr. Singh gave the assurance soon after the House reassembled, the three leaders thanked him and the Congress president for trying to resolve the matter in an amicable manner.
“A valuable guide”
Earlier, while taking note of the discussion over the last two days that witnessed arguments and reasons for canvassing the question of caste, Mr. Chidambaram said the government was seized of the matter. “The views of honourable members will certainly be a valuable guide to the government,” he said in his statement, which virtually gave out nothing but offered explanation relating to the Census 2011 and preparation of the National Population Register (NPR), the two exercises which are on. The debate on the issue saw members cutting across party lines favouring a caste-based census.
Replying to the debate, the Home Minister stressed that the main aim of the exercise was headcount and listed difficulties in including caste in the list. The Registrar-General had pointed out a number of logistics and practical difficulties in canvassing the question of caste while conducting census. However, he assured the House that the government “will give due weight to all aspects of the issue.”
“The enumerator is not an investigator or verifier,” Mr. Chidambaram said, pointing out that 21 lakh enumerators — mostly primary school teachers — had no training or expertise to classify the answer as OBC or otherwise.
“There is a Central list of OBCs and State-specific lists of OBCs. Some States do not have a list of OBCs while some have a list of OBCs and a sub-set called Most Backward Castes,” he said.
Quoting the Registrar-General, Mr. Chidambaram said issues regarding methodology, avoiding phonetic and spelling errors, stage of canvassing of caste, maintaining integrity of enumeration and doing an accurate headcount of population would arise.
“The census is done under the authority of the Census Act, 1948. Census 2011 will be the 15th national census since 1872 and the 7th since Independence. Population census is the total process of collecting demographic, economic and social data. What is published as the census data are only aggregates; the information relating to the individual is confidential and not shared with anyone or any authority,” he said.
While throwing up the question if the census was the vehicle to carry out caste-based enumeration, he pointed out that records showed that an attempt was made by the Ministry of Social Justice to include caste as one of the questions that should be canvassed in the 2001 Census. “However, the government of the day — the NDA government — did not take a decision to that effect and maintained the policy that has been in force since 1951,” Mr. Chidambaram said.