Where is the caste data?

In August 2010, Finance Minister and head of the Group of Ministers, Pranab Mukherjee, made a reassuring statement in Parliament on behalf of the government of India, that there would be no need for apprehension about the caste census as there was political consensus on it. Further, the caste census would be carried out during the house-to-house census enumeration phase in February 2011, and not at the biometric camps as was apprehended. It was >a wise and welcome statement.

But a month later, >the government went back on this assurance to conduct the caste census during the census enumeration phase in February 2011. The Union Cabinet also decided on September 9 of the same year that a separate caste census would be conducted from June to September 2011 and that the Census Commissioner of India would conduct the field operations. This announcement was made by the Home Minister, >P. Chidambaram, who was in charge of the census.

Diffusion of responsibility

The government went back on this cabinet decision also with the cabinet deciding in May 2011 that it would be a poverty-cum-caste survey — not a census under the Census Act — though grandiosely christened with the misnomer “Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011”, to be conducted during June to December 2011. It would be done by the State governments, and not by the Census Commissioner of India, and the well-equipped, well-organised and well-experienced all-India census machinery under the statutory empowerment of the provisions of the Census Act, 1948.

The collection of data on poverty was to be undertaken by the 35 different States and Union Territory administrations. The Union Rural Development Ministry was to do this for the rural areas, and the Union Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Ministry for the urban areas. But these ministries would have no responsibility on caste data collection. Nor was there any responsibility or involvement for the Registrar General of India in the formulation and implementation of this survey and the overseeing of the part of its caste data collection as it is not under the Census Act. This multiplicity of agencies and diffusion of responsibility would wreak havoc with the efficiency of the operations and the quality of the caste data collected.

In the Parliament session on March 1, 2011, leaders of all political parties raised the strong demand to include various socio-economic questions in the proposed caste census in order to make it fully useful and productive. Sensing the mood of the house, Mr. Mukherjee, who was also the chairman of the Group of Ministers on caste census, intervened and pacified the leaders. He requested them to submit their suggestions on the other socio-economic questions to be included in the caste census questionnaire. This was done immediately thereafter as a common letter signed by all leaders.

Air of indifference

Instead of acting on this joint request, the government did a volte face by abandoning its own cabinet decision to conduct a caste census by the Census Commissioner of India. Instead, it came up with the decision to club it with the poverty survey and foisted it on the State governments.

As Census is a subject under the Union List of the Constitution, it is the exclusive responsibility of the Government of India to conduct the caste census. It cannot seek to abdicate its responsibility by shifting it on to the State governments, which is unconstitutional and contrary to the federal principles of the country’s polity.

It was clear to me that this would make the entire exercise casual and perfunctory with an extremely high rate of coverage omission. This has been proved right by the way this poverty-cum-caste survey has turned out.

The Congress-led Kerala government had already given an indication of this problem. A report in this daily, on July 11, 2011, and citing a senior State government official said: “the state government is quite unprepared for conducting the census given the enormity of the task. Unlike the census department which conducts censuses regularly, the state government has no experience of organizing such an exercise or deploying and training the huge number of personnel required for this operation.”

Controversy and disputes

The >poverty survey itself was soon courting controversies and embroiled in disputes, with many States not agreeing with the Centre on the criteria for drawing up the poverty line, the fixing of an arbitrary cap of 46 per cent on poverty in the rural population by the Planning Commission, and the disapproval of the Supreme Court on placing a cap on the poverty list. It was not the appropriate operation to carry out data collection for a complex, sociological phenomenon like caste along with the obligatory socio-economic parameters of each caste to serve as the benchmark database for a decade for various sectors of public policy.

Just knowing how many people in each caste were Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line was not “socio-economic profiling of all caste population” as claimed by the government spokesman who announced the new cabinet decision. And this would not discharge the Union government from its statutory obligation to collect full and quantifiable caste-wise, socio-economic-educational data as required by the Supreme Court.

Apart from mere caste-wise population numbers, in order to determine the backward classes and castes as per the Constitution of India, it was (and is) essential to collect the data required for determining socially and educationally backward classes (Article 15), and the data relating to the representation of the castes in the services under the State (Article 16).

As for caste data collection, with merely the caste name entered and without any other detail being available — these were sub caste name, occupation, whether backward as per the definitions, and with the caste name often misspelt or phonetically mispresented — it would have been impossible to make a distinction between similar-sounding caste names and to correctly identify or classify the tens of thousands of caste entries in a multitude of languages from across the country. After years of sitting on it, the Office of the Registrar General of India (ORGI) would only throw up its hands, express its inability to generate any caste tables and say that nothing could be done with this highly defective data. This is precisely what has happened. The ORGI is now said to be just forwarding the collected caste returns to the respective “nodal” ministries for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the government of India viz. the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

The Kerala parallel

In January 2013, reports in Kerala said that >the socio-economic and caste census would have to be redone in at least 25 per cent of the enumeration blocks due to extensive errors that occurred in the original enumeration done during April-May 2012. In addition, even in the other blocks, the collected data would have to be rechecked thoroughly for accuracy due to large-scale omissions of households and heavy coverage and content errors.

The next procedure prescribed was that the draft lists prepared, based on the field enumeration, should be published in the panchayats and block offices inviting complaints and objections, but which did not take place as scheduled. More than 15 months after the scheduled completion of the survey, reports came in, in August 2013, that the draft lists had not even been prepared. Subsequently, it was reported that the government of India had prescribed that the States should complete the SECC by August 2014, failing which no further Central funds would be provided for it.

News reports in October 2014 indicated that in Kerala, the lists could not be proceeded with because they were found to be defective — though the draft list had been published in July 2014 — with over 30 lakh complaints and objections having been received from the public from all over the State. As a result, the survey had to be abandoned midway as incomplete without finalising any data.

At the time of launching the SECC, the announcement made by the government of India was that the caste data entered in the schedules would be uploaded to ORGI at Delhi for further processing. I could see that this was a patently unworkable proposition because no scrutiny or handling of the data entered in all the regional languages could have been done at Delhi as ORGI does not have the staff strength required to undertake this task. This has been proved true subsequently with an announcement by the government that the caste data would be handled at the respective State census directorates.

Even now, in 2015, >no caste data has emerged out of the SECC. The government of India is silent on the progress of the collection, collation and tabulation of the caste data from the SECC and the time schedule for the publication of caste data.

The Kerala Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, also of the Congress party, has made a drastic but candid assessment that the entire rural data released now is wrong — this despite it having been launched by the previous Congress-led Central government and the fact that it was his own government machinery which undertook the exercise in the State. This is an assessment which is likely to be shared and aired by more States. This poverty survey would become as discredited as its predecessor BPL surveys.

(Dr. M. Vijayanunni is the former Census Commissioner and Registrar General of India and the former Chief Secretary of Kerala.)

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