The central argument in favour of caste enumeration has a plausible ring to it. Given the strong, if complex, correlation between caste and socio-economic status, the exercise seems to offer the promise of yielding relevant data so that social and economic disparities can be more accurately targeted by policy. On closer analysis, the advantage turns out to be largely illusory. In fact, the political demand for reviving the colonial practice of caste enumeration — given up by independent India except for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes — has been driven less by ameliorative ideals than by expediency and self-serving, divisive political agendas. At best, fresh caste enumeration can provide only marginal benefits because, as sociologist Nandini Sundar points out, it holds out only an “illusory promise of formal employment.” The long-term societal benefits of reservation — in terms of making a constitutionally sanctioned statement against social inequality and actually providing educational and economic opportunity to historically and socially disadvantaged or oppressed communities — are there for everyone to see. But with the majority of India's workforce languishing in the informal sector and the state's role in providing jobs declining over the past two decades, it is clear that reservation is becoming less and less potent as a countervailing force.

But the objections to the Cabinet's nod for a “focussed,” standalone house-to-house caste headcount between June and September 2011 are not only political-ideological. They are also practical. As any modern sociologist knows, answers to the question, ‘What is your caste?' can be notoriously variable, subjective, and influenced by contingent factors. Caste has an elusive arithmetic in a country that is home to a staggering number of sub-castes, where caste names vary depending on context (for marriage or for religious rituals), and where the social implications of a caste tag vary from region to region. Any 21st century caste enumeration that relies on self-certification will face the same problem encountered by the colonial censuses — what legal scholar Marc Galanter describes as the “unseemly scramble to use census listings to…inflate numbers for political advantage.” But there is yet another objection, pressed in fact by progressive advocates of caste enumeration in the main census exercise: a standalone headcount of caste will be a “futile” exercise because it will be impossible to integrate it with “the socio-economic, educational and demographic data” gathered during the census headcount (see the statement published in Op-Ed). If such integration is ruled out by the subsequent standalone headcount, then why do it?

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