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A state survey is no solution to lack of political will for national caste census

Although a state-level survey might sound like a feasible idea to end the logjam on caste census, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

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In an interview with ThePrint, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s OBC Morcha chief K. Laxman said that it would not be possible for the Narendra Modi government to conduct a caste census, but such an exercise could be done by the states themselves. He said that the onus to conduct a survey is on them and once it is done, the Union government can then take it from there.

It’s not only the BJP leaders who are pitching for state-level caste enumeration. The idea of state-level population enumeration is certainly finding acceptance among administrative and political circles.

Also Read: Bihar most aware state on caste census — 56% want information released

States willing to conduct caste survey

Karnataka was the first state to conduct caste enumeration after 1931. Then-chief minister of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah passed an order in 2014 that the State Backward Classes Commission will carry out a socio-educational and economic survey. After the completion of the survey, selected parts of the report reached the media and public domain, but consecutive governments in Karnataka refrained from publishing the report.

Chhattisgarh is conducting a similar survey of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) to collect quantifiable data. Chhattisgarh High Court has stayed the state’s notification for 27 per cent quota for OBCs because the state government failed to provide relevant data. Chhattisgarh Quantifiable Data Commission (CQDC) is carrying out the survey.

Meanwhile, the Maharashtra State Commission for Backward Classes (MSCBC) has started the process for a socio-economic and caste census in Maharashtra. The state assembly has approved a resolution in this regard. This was necessitated because of the logjam in the matters of Maratha Reservation and the Supreme Court adverse judgment in OBC quota in tribal-dominated districts. The Maharashtra government has also asked the Modi government to release the data of Socio-Economic and Caste Census, 2011. But the Union government has said no to this demand and called it unreliable.

Odisha State Commission for Backward Classes (OSCBC) is also conducting a state-wise survey of the social and educational conditions of the backward classes. Many more states are conducting or thinking of conducting similar exercises to gather caste-related data. Nitish Kumar in Bihar has hinted that if the Union government fails to conduct a caste census, the state government may go for a state-level survey.

Interestingly, the Kerala government has asked the State Commission for Economically Backward Classes to conduct a survey to find out the economic backwardness of the forward castes.

Also Read: Upper caste networks of political parties are resisting the caste census. But not for long

States cannot conduct census

Although a state-level survey might sound like a feasible idea to end the logjam on caste census, it’s a constitutionally and legally invalid proposition. Instead of solving the impasse, this will muddy the waters further and will lead to more complications and litigations. For now, it is political jugglery to throw the ball over to the states. But there is no rationale for saying that it is good enough for states but not for the Centre to implement.

One, enumerating the Indian population may sound like a mundane administrative exercise, but the Constitution-makers had a more nuanced idea about this counting. With all their administrative experience and foresight, they specifically included the Census on the Union List and not on the state or concurrent list. In the 7th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which defines the functioning of federal structure, census operations find their place at number 69 as a Union subject. Other notable entries include defence, foreign affairs, posts, telegraphs, war and peace.

As long as the Census operation remains on the Union list, and until the Constitution is amended for this purpose, no state can conduct its own census. Maybe because of this constitutional framework, K. Laxman didn’t use the word census in the context of state-administered exercise; he used the term ‘caste-based survey’. It is possible for the states to do population surveys, but it cannot be called a census.

The census is a unified and administered operation and has never been an aggregate of state enumerations. So to propose that the states should conduct their own enumeration, which the Union government will then take forward, is a fallacious idea.

Two, census operations in India have an almost 130-year-old legacy. After Independence, a separate legal framework was made for this and the Census of India Act, 1948, was passed and enacted. This is a central Act and it clearly says that the Union government will notify the Census in the gazette and conduct it. As long as this Act is not overruled by another law or by the Supreme Court, the Census will be done under this Act only.

The Census Act gives legal sanctity to the census and also gives certain powers to the census commissioners and even the enumerators. One cannot give false information to the enumerators, and the enumerators are bound to note and tabulate the given information correctly. As the Act goes on to say: “Any census officer who intentionally puts any offensive or improper question or knowingly makes any false return or… any sorter, compiler or other member of the census staff who removes, secrets, damages or destroys any census document …shall be punishable with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees and in case of a conviction under specific clause may be put behind the bar. The maximum penalty is imprisonment which may extend to three years.”

Any survey conducted by the state government will not have such legal restrictions and hence can be rigged quite easily. Even mobilising the whole administrative machinery for the census is facilitated by the Act. But for the states, it will be a chaotic affair.

Three, the Census Commissioner is the only office in India that has done census operations and has a long history of doing such population enumeration. This office has evolved over the years and acquired certain expertise, which is required to conduct the Census. It will be a tough and complex task for the state governments to conduct similar exercises.

As we have seen in the case of Karnataka, any such exercise at the state level will be mired in controversies, allegations and counter-allegations, and may end up in litigation. This will serve no purpose since such exercises will not have the sanctity and authenticity of the decennial census, conducted by the Census Commissioner of India under the Census of India Act, 1948.

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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