Counting caste in the census

The Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) launched in 2011 to enumerate castes along with socio-economic data, is progressing, and is likely to be completed soon.

A stand-alone caste headcount may not normally be desirable in a country grappling with the adverse consequences of social hierarchy and caste-based divisions. However, in conjunction with socio-economic data, a caste census may yield quantifiable data that could be used to evaluate measures such as caste-based reservation in employment and education. In that sense, a caste-wise enumeration of the population, both in the urban and rural areas, may be useful in guiding policy. A recent decision by the Supreme Court setting aside a direction from the Madras High Court to the authorities to hold a caste-wise census, caused disquiet in States like Tamil Nadu, where the demand for a caste census has been strong. The verdict was seen by some as judicial invalidation of the idea of a caste census. However, the court verdict was limited to the question whether the High Court was right in encroaching upon the policy domain of the executive. Secondly, the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) launched in 2011 to enumerate castes along with socio-economic data, is progressing, and is likely to be completed soon. The court had only held that it was a policy matter in the realm of the executive. It may be recalled that the court had in the past wanted to know the basis on which reservation was fixed, as there is no precise data on the extent of backwardness of any given caste. With some States exceeding the 50 per cent limit on total reservation fixed by the Supreme Court in the Indira Sawhney case, the continuance of higher levels of caste-based reservation may depend on the socio-economic data.

However, it is not clear why the Union government, or the office of the Census Commissioner that had appealed against the High Court direction to hold a caste census, did not apprise the Supreme Court of the fact that SECC 2011 is in progress. The government’s argument was limited to the point that any direction on the manner in which the census is undertaken will be tantamount to interference in policy matters. Perhaps, the government had gone on appeal only on the principle that the decennial census should remain in its present form and that the socio-economic caste survey was just a one-off exercise. It is not yet clear how the government proposes to use the caste data collected by it. The outcome of SECC 2011 may well be used to identify beneficiaries under various welfare schemes, including those earmarked for availing facilities under food security schemes. It will be quite a daunting task to match the socio-economic characteristics of a particular community with its numerical strength. In whatever manner the details may be put to use, India must continue to balance social justice with the long-term objective of creating a caste-free society.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 3:17:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/counting-caste-in-the-census/article6615443.ece

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