No excuses please, India awaits a full caste headcount

The Narendra Modi government has finally elaborated on its reasons for not disclosing the caste data collated in the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011. The Government’s affidavit filed in the Supreme Court of India last month by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment — in response to a writ petition by the Maharashtra government — has also tried to explain away the exclusion of full caste enumeration in the forthcoming Census exercise, which is expected to resume in 2022 after the COVID-19 pandemic-induced interruption. The official arguments focus on the impracticability of full caste enumeration, suggesting that operational difficulties are simply too overwhelming.

Overstating ‘mistakes’, ‘flaws’

As detailed in the affidavit, while the total number of castes counted in the 1931 Census was 4,147, the SECC of 2011 returned over 46 lakh caste names. Such a humongous number of castes were returned partly because Indian people use the names of their caste, sub-caste, clan, gotra and surnames interchangeably. Moreover, the enumerators also got confused over the spellings and classification of the castes. The question is, if the 46 lakh caste names that were returned in the SECC 2011 were the results of “mistakes by the enumerators” or “inherent flaws in the manner of conducting census” as alleged in the official affidavit, why could not those mistakes and flaws be rectified in a decade?

The Union Cabinet had appointed an Expert Committee headed by the then NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Arvind Panagariya in July 2015, charging it with the classification of caste names returned in SECC 2011. The Government’s affidavit admits that no other member was appointed to the committee. Therefore, neither did the committee ever meet nor did it fulfil its mandate in six years. Who is responsible for this negligence?

The extent of errors in caste enumeration is also being exaggerated. The affidavit cites the example of Maharashtra to show that while the aggregate number of castes enlisted in the central lists of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) and the State list of Other Backward Classes (OBC) is 494, the caste names returned by the SECC 2011 for the State stood at 4.28 lakh. But the affidavit also states that “99% of the castes enumerated had [a] population of less than 100 persons”. Out of the total population of 10.3 crore in the State, 8.8 crore people could be classified under 2,440 castes, each having a population of over 1,000. Therefore, the proliferation of caste names and the consequent difficulty in their classification have arisen not because of the majority, but a tiny proportion of the total population.

This is further corroborated by an action taken report on the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Rural Development on “BPL Survey (currently Socio Economic & Caste Census, 2011)”. In this report dated August 31, 2016, the Union government is quoted as categorically stating that the data errors on caste and religion in SECC 2011 accounted for 1.34 crore out of 118.64 crore people, i.e., only around 1% of the total enumerated population. How can the same government now characterise the entire findings of the caste census as “fraught with mistakes and inaccuracies”?

Complex, yet feasible

Population census in a vast and uniquely diverse country such as India cannot but be a complex exercise. Over the decades, the census machinery has moved on a learning curve, credibly enumerating complicated categories such as language and religion, which also display considerable diversity. For instance, as per Paper 1 of 2018 on the Language Census of 2011, the number of initial raw returns of mother tongues had totalled 19,569 for the entire country. Following scrutiny, editing and linguistic grouping, these raw returns were first rationalised into 1,369 mother tongues and subsequently classified on the basis of at least 10,000 or more speakers for 22 scheduled and 99 non-scheduled languages, i.e., 121 languages at the all-India level.

While caste appears to be an even more complex category than language in the Indian context, technologies to enumerate and analyse complex big data have become easily accessible today. Yet, the affidavit cites the absence of an all-India Registry of Castes to rule out the conduct of full caste enumeration in the forthcoming census. Why could such a registry of castes and tribes not be created till date by the Union and State governments, acting together, by combining the central lists of SCs and STs and the State lists of OBCs?

The aggregate number of castes and tribes included in those lists would currently be around 5,000 at the all-India level. For any individual State, the maximum number of castes cannot be above 500. Rationalisation and classification of the numerous raw caste returns into a maximum of 500 castes at the State level or around 5,000 castes at the all-India level, is eminently feasible. Training manuals for the enumerators can also be drawn up on the basis of a single, consolidated caste list for each State.

This could have been attained by the expert committee appointed by the Union cabinet by now, but for its innate dysfunctionality. Rather than rectifying its administrative failings, the Union government is now citing it as evidence to construct a theorem of logistical impossibility.

Within the framework

The Government’s affidavit also cites the absence of categorical constitutional or statutory requirements to count castes other than SCs and STs in the Census. However, Articles 15(4) and 15(5) of the Indian Constitution have explicitly recognised “socially and educationally backward classes of citizens” as a category distinct from SCs and STs and enabled the State to make special provisions for their advancement. Counting the population of these Backward Classes would therefore be very much within the constitutional framework.

Yet, the official affidavit alleges that full caste enumeration may compromise the basic integrity of the Census exercise, distorting the fundamental population count itself. If enumeration of individual castes under the “SC”, “ST” and “Other” categories in all censuses since 1951 have not led to such perverse outcomes, why should the additional enumeration under another “OBC” category cause such a catastrophe? Such deliberate scaremongering has no basis in the laws or the Constitution.

The logistical or legal justifications of the Union government to not disclose caste census data and refuse to conduct a full caste enumeration in the forthcoming Census do not stand scrutiny. Rather, it creates ground for suspicion whether the establishment has vested interests in concealing the real numbers and proportions of various castes in the Indian population. Such subterfuge would not be acceptable to a wide spectrum of social movements and political parties, who are demanding full caste enumeration.

Prasenjit Bose is an economist and activist based in Kolkata

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 5:45:32 AM |

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