Other Backward Class, or OBC, is approximated to be the largest social category in India. If the Mandal Commission’s estimate that OBCs constitute 52 per cent of India’s population still holds true, then they currently represent around 8 per cent of the global population. In other words, they are probably the largest human population group, with a common social denominator, which remains unenumerated for all practical purposes.
As mandated, the Census of India counts every Indian citizen, so OBCs, like the rest of the population, are technically counted every 10 years. However, as it happens, they, unlike Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), are clubbed together and reported in aggregation with the rest of the population in a category called “Other”. No one accurately knows their actual population size and sociodemographic attributes.
Lack of data, past to present
In the Constitution of India, SC and ST are well-defined groups for different purposes, but OBCs find no mention. The document, however, directs the legislature to recognise backward classes of citizens and make due provisions for their ‘adequate representation’ in services under the government. Over time, through legislative and judicial deliberations and processes, most of the socio-economically and educationally backward castes were included in Other Backward Classes, which is now often used interchangeably with Other Backward Castes.
Long before the Mandal Commission’s (1979) work on the identification of castes forming the backward classes and recommendations of reservations for them, many state governments had already implemented a few similar measures. Although in line with constitutional principles, most such attempts were challenged in different courts and scuttled primarily for not being based on “objective and empirical” criteria. At the Union level, the Kaka Kalelkar Commission report (1956) was shelved following the same logic. Following Mandal Commission’s recommendation, V.P. Singh’s government provisioned 27 per cent reservation in jobs for OBCs in 1991. This act was also challenged in the Supreme Court, wherein empirical accuracy and objectivity formed core of the objections.
In the post-90s, the Mandal Commission report (based on a detailed pan-India survey on socio-economic and educational backwardness) became a guiding document for different legislatures to enact various measures for social justice (primarily reservations in job and education) for OBCs. This, in effect, initiated a rush for reservations, and the nation witnessed a few massive stirs and protests by disgruntled caste groups forcing governments to act. Unsurprisingly, most such enactments were challenged in the courts, which invariably asked the governments to provide an empirical basis for their actions.
Recently, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra – attempting to amend OBC reservations – were found embroiled in similar legal battles, wherein they were asked to provide data on the ‘level of backwardness’ among populations. To defend their positions, the two states were seen making desperate moves to use Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC 2011), as there is no other comprehensive data source available on the conditions of OBCs.
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Caste-based disadvantages: what we know from existing data
In most of the contentious issues relating to OBCs, questions about the population’s size, level of backwardness, and representations (reservations) in various opportunities are at the core. The lack of robust and regular data makes it difficult for the governments, even if they are willing, to initiate any welfare measures or amendments and further defend them in courts. And it is because of this data gap that questions on reservations like “how many generations…?” remain unanswered in courts.
It is not that there is an absolute lack of data about the status of OBCs. There are a couple of large-scale sample surveys – primarily National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) and National Sample Surveys (NSS) – which provide data on numerous variables for different social categories, i.e., ST/SC/OBC/Others. These data sets can provide insights into a few most contentious issues such as representation in jobs and access to higher education that have been causing intense socio-political feuds over the years.
Using NFHS 2016 data, we can have an understanding (beyond literacy and school education) of access to higher education for populations in different social categories. It is evident that categories benefiting from the reservations are still a long way to go compared to the “upper-castes” population. The proportion of the “upper-caste” population having a graduate/post-graduate degree is more than double than that in OBCs. The situation of OBCs is almost equivalent to SCs and even worse if we remove the so-called creamy layer (top quintile of the population, approximated using Wealth Index) from their population.
A detailed dissection of NSS data can give us a broad overview of the representation of the population from different social categories in various occupations. It is seen that a majority proportion of “upper” caste households report their principal occupation in public services/white-collar jobs category, while the majority of STs in agriculture/fisheries, SCs in manual labour, and OBCs in blue-collar jobs. It is ironic that even after years of Independence, the occupational profile of the population still coincides, to a large extent, with the unjust division of labour as prescribed in the archaic Varna system.
A detailed look at the same data reveals that SC/ST/OBCs are crowded out by the “upper-caste” households in the most lucrative professional job categories, demanding high-level skills and education. For instance, around 60 per cent of the households reporting their principal occupation as health (medical) professionals belonged to “upper-castes”. This is to be noted that these profession-categories constitute only top professional positions and not the associate/secondary level jobs, e.g., nurses, pathologists, ward boys, etc. It is evident from the analysis that among all these professional job categories, “upper-caste” population has the lion’s share, except the teaching where OBCs dominate. However, the percentage of OBCs might go down significantly across various profession-categories if the creamy layer population (not eligible for any reservations) is excluded.
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Looking beyond SECC 2011 and Census of India
The data from available sample surveys reiterate historical caste-based inequalities unfavorable to SC/ST/OBCs. Nevertheless, their utility for public policy purposes is limited due to the nature of data variables, survey coverage, veracity (compared to the census), and reliability. SECC 2011 was a novel response (at least at the level of intent) to address the data gap and resolve many longstanding politico-legal issues pertaining to OBCs.
Unfortunately, it seemed to have failed its purpose on various counts. A close look at SECC questionnaires suggests that they are marred by incomprehensiveness of data variables, inaccurate data capture (particularly caste variable) design, and lack of structure. No surprise, the data is still off-limit for public use and thus also from wider scrutiny.
In the absence of SECC 2011 data and any other alternative data, demand for caste-based headcounts (or adding a caste column) in India’s decennial census is growing louder every passing day. A caste column in the census could be a good start; nevertheless, in its current format, it may also not bring much on the table needed to address the data needs for inclusive social policymaking. It indeed provides detailed data on a few variables like education, household assets (basic consumer items), etc., in combination with caste (currently for SC and ST groups only).
However, it would not be enough to settle many endless questions relating to backwardness and representation, particularly in the context of OBCs. The data will still have many blind spots on contested issues like level of income, possession of wealth, representation in top jobs, participation in caste-based occupations, etc. And the nation would still be unaware of the socio-economic backwardness of people positioned in distinct social categories by virtue of birth.
The point here is that the Census of India in its current format plus a caste column will be of only limited use and fail to address most of the pertinent questions which the proponents of caste-census want it to answer. The only solution is a full-blown caste census in the line of SECC 2011, which must be well-thought, detailed in design, and comprehensive in terms of socio-economic variables. This is, however, not to suggest against caste-based counts in Census of India, 2021. While government machinery gets ready to conduct a full-blown caste-census, it could at least enumerate OBCs by including a caste column.
Rakesh Chandra is Assistant Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)