The caste imperative: On the subject of an updated caste census

Caste census, even if morally flawed, can help in targeting of quota benefits 

April 20, 2023 12:20 am | Updated 12:27 pm IST

With the Congress party joining the chorus for an updated caste census, there seems to be an emerging consensus among the political opposition on the need for this exercise. While the parties committed to reservations in the northern belt — the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in particular — have made this demand as a reaction to the expansion of reservation benefits to economically weaker sections among “forward” castes using income criteria, the Congress’s pivot towards supporting this stems from the party’s new political emphasis on expanding its support base. With the Mandal Commission report of 1980, that was based on caste census data of 1931, still remaining the basis of identifying backwardness and determining the extent of reservation to the Other Backward Classes, the need for a comprehensive census that provides data to support, or evaluate existing reservation quotas, or to assess demands for them remains pertinent. Such a diligent exercise would also serve a legal imperative allowing the government to answer the Supreme Court’s call for quantifiable data. But counting castes is not easy. An inherent weakness is evident in how the government described the Socio-Economic and Caste Census in 2011: as being riddled with infirmities that made the data collected unusable. Data here recorded 46 lakh different castes, sub-castes, caste/clan surnames, which required adequate parsing before being used for proper enumeration. The survey’s hurried conduct, without utilising the Census Commissioners and the Office of the Registrar General properly, also rendered it problematic.

A more thoroughgoing exercise would entail an adequate consolidation of caste/sub-caste names into social groups based on synonymity and equivalence of the self-identified group names revealed by respondents in the census. Marking these groups against the OBC/Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes lists for each State would build a useful database, which can be utilised in the decennial Census. The data obtained this way can be used to parse aggregated socioeconomic information for these groups. But with the government having postponed the long-delayed 2021 Census and not acquiescing to the demand of including caste counts, questions remain whether an effective caste census is possible. There is of course the risk of reification of caste identities even as the constitutional order seeks to build a casteless society. But with caste-based identification still predominant, such a census seems politically imperative, even if morally flawed, for the purpose of addressing socioeconomic inequities through facile reservation quotas that confer income benefits and a degree of social justice without actually advancing the cause of a truly casteless society.

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