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Explained | Why is a headcount on caste lines considered necessary, and what will be the outcome?

The story so far: The Tamil Nadu government has decided to appoint a commission to formulate a methodology to collect caste-wise particulars of its population and use that to come up with a report. It is not clear if this will involve a full headcount of all members of every caste, or whether it is better described as a ‘survey’ than a ‘census’. The Centre conducted a ‘Socio-Economic Caste Census’ (SECC) in 2011 throughout the country, but it did not make public the caste component of the findings. In Karnataka, the outcome of a similar exercise has not been disclosed to the public.

Is collection of caste details part of the census?

Caste was among the details collected by enumerators during the decennial Census of India until 1931. It was given up in 1941, a year in which the census operation was partially affected by World War II. In his report on the 1941 exercise, then Census Commissioner of India, M.W.M. Yeatts, indicated that tabulation of caste details separately involved additional costs. “The sanctioned tabulation for British India does not cover caste, but even had the full course been taken, there would have been no all-India caste table. Even in 1931, it was severely limited due to financial reasons; the time is past for this enormous and costly table...,” he wrote. However, at the time of sorting the details, some provinces or States that wanted a caste record for administrative reasons were given some data on payment.

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Has there been criticism of including caste in the census?

The principal argument against taking caste particulars of individuals is that it tends to perpetuate the caste system. J.H. Hutton, the Census Commissioner in 1931, notes that on the occasion of each successive census since 1901, some criticism had been raised about taking any note of the fact of caste. “It has been alleged that the mere act of labelling persons as belonging to a caste tends to perpetuate the system,” he writes. However, he rejects the criticism, arguing that there is nothing wrong in recording a fact, and ignoring its existence would be ostrich-like.

What was the view after Independence?

R.A. Gopalaswami, the first Indian Registrar-General of independent India, said in the 1951 report: “The 1951 census was not [emphasis in the original] to concern itself with questions regarding castes, races and tribes, except insofar as the necessary statistical material related to ‘special groups’ and certain other material relating to backward classes collected and made over to the Backward Classes Commission.” ‘Special Groups’ has been explained as referring to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Anglo-Indians and certain castes treated provisionally as ‘backward’ for the purposes of the census. This implies that BC data were collected, but not compiled or published.

How have caste details been collected so far?

While SC/ST details are collected as part of the census, details of other castes are not collected by the enumerators. The main method is by self-declaration to the enumerator. So far, backward classes commissions in various States have been conducting their own counts to ascertain the population of backward castes. The methodology may vary from State to State. Details available about some commissions in the public domain suggest that these panels use methods like distribution of questionnaires, meeting with representatives of stakeholders, touring relevant areas and localities, and in some cases, such as the J.A. Ambasankar Commission in Tamil Nadu and the Venkataswamy Commission in Karnataka, door-to-door enumeration.

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What about SECC 2011?

The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 was a major exercise to obtain data about the socio-economic status of various communities. Even though there could be an overlap in the dataset of SECC 2011 with that of the census taken that year, the findings could be markedly different. The general census is conducted in a small window of a month, while the caste census is conducted over a longer period of time, and there is a good deal of revision and correction. The SECC 2011 had two components: a survey of the rural and urban households and ranking of these households based on pre-set parameters, and a caste census. However, only the details of the economic conditions of the people in rural and urban households were released. The caste data have not been released till now. While a precise reason is yet to be disclosed, it is surmised that the data were considered too politically sensitive. Fear of antagonising dominant and powerful castes that may find that their projected strength in the population is not as high as claimed may be an important reason.

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What is the legal imperative for a caste count?

Over the last two decades, the Supreme Court has been raising questions about the basis for reservation levels being high in various States. In particular, it has laid down that there should be quantifiable data to justify the presence of a caste in the backward class list, as well as evidence of its under-representation in services. It has also called for periodical review of community-wise lists so that the benefits do not perpetually go in favour of a few castes.

Many community leaders argue that knowing the precise number of the population of each caste would help tailor the reservation policy to ensure equitable representation of all of them. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the State government has said obtaining quantifiable data is necessary for the protection of its 69% reservation policy. While obtaining relevant and accurate data may be the major gain from a caste census, the possibility that it will lead to heartburn among some sections and spawn demands for larger or separate quotas from groups found to be significant in number is a possible pitfall. Tabulating and categorising similar-sounding caste names and deciding on whether to treat some sections as separate castes or sub-castes of a community will also be a challenging task.


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