Opposition to the exercise shrinks within the Cabinet

The United Progressive Alliance government decided on Wednesday to set up a Group of Ministers (GOM) on the issue of caste enumeration in Census 2011, official sources said, amidst shrinking opposition to the idea within the Union Cabinet.

These sources added that the GOM would be given a “tight schedule,” in case the caste headcount needed to be integrated within the current census operations, but remained coy about whether the government had taken a final decision on undertaking a caste-based census at all. The GOM was proposed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee (who is likely to head it), who said that the complexity of the issue demanded a more detailed discussion.

Modalities

The GOM would not only work out the modalities of doing a caste headcount along with Census 2011 but also consider whether it would be practical to do so. The sources pointed out that the Cabinet, which spent half an hour on the issue, took cognisance of the mood across the political spectrum in favour of a caste-based census and the possible political fallout in case the government did not heed this.

Compared with the last Cabinet meeting on May 4 at which this issue was flagged, the opposition to a caste headcount was muted, with only three Ministers — M.S. Gill, Kapil Sibal and Anand Sharma — voicing their disquiet. Minister for Youth and Sports M.S. Gill led the charge on Wednesday, saying caste enumeration would be disadvantageous to numerically small groups; Minister for Commerce Anand Sharma expressed his reservations but was not as vociferous as he had been on May 4.

Of those supporting the caste head-count, the most vocal was Minister for Law Veerappa Moily. Pointing out that caste was a social reality in India, he stressed that an authoritative set of numbers would help the government better target its numerous welfare schemes.

Backing him were Minister for Social Justice Mukul Wasnik, who seems to have changed his mind since the last Cabinet, and Minister for Urban Development S. Jaipal Reddy, one of the most consistent supporters of a caste-based head count: Mr. Reddy reportedly said he did not understand why it was being discussed at all — he thought it was a settled issue.

The sources said Home Minister P. Chidambaram again pointed out the difficulties in integrating a caste headcount in Census 2011.

He added, however, that the best time to go for a caste-based headcount would be after the census figures were tabulated, during the biometric capture phase when photographing, fingerprinting and iris mapping of citizens for the National Population Register (NPR) is to be done. However, others in the Cabinet felt it could be done at the second stage of enumeration.

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