Without fresh OBC data, caste issues are resolved through muscle power.
Both Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh governments have collectively spent Rs 4,893 crore on the Socio-Economic and Caste Census since 2011. But even after seven years, the data has not been released. What is it that government is trying to hide and why?
There must be someone in this country who does not want the reality of the caste demography to emerge. Are they the so-called hegemonic upper caste people, occupying positions of power in government and bureaucracy, who are scuttling the caste enumeration? Or are they the leaders of the BJP and the Congress party, who are afraid of uncertainties of such an exercise?
What we do know is that in post-Independence India, for the first time, there was an effort to enumerate caste, but we are still waiting for the promised data.
The caste enumeration is not a novelty in India. During the British era, castes were counted in decadal census. It’s a common practice across the globe, especially in democratic countries, to enumerate the diversity and socio-economic disparities of the society in census. These are used to formulate policies and also required for academic exercises. Countries usually collect data on race, ethnicities, language, religion, gender and other factors. India also collects data on religion, language and gender. But caste has been a sort of an enigma for policymakers.
Post-Independence, only scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are the two social groups that find place in the census forms because their data is required to fulfil the constitutional obligation of giving them reservation in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures. The common irrational argument to discourage the enumeration of other castes is that caste census is the root cause of casteism. It is as if caste census gives birth to caste system.
The first complete census in India was conducted in 1881. Since then, every tenth year starting 1-20 February, government employees, mostly school teachers, go for house-to-house surveys to count each and every person and collect required information about them. The year 1941 was an exception because the government machinery was busy with World War-2 and all the tabulations were not completed.
In 2011, a different type of census began. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 started on 29 June 2011. It was similar to the decadal census in a sense that door-to-door enumeration was to be conducted across the country. According to the central government’s announcement and planning, it should have been completed by December 2011. It was claimed that “the process will go a long way towards meeting the inclusive growth agenda of the Government”. The data thus collected was to be utilised in the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-13 to 2016-17).
The deadline was shifted several times, and the SECC 2011 project was finally completed on 31 March 2016. The Modi government announced that the project met all its milestones and the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had approved the revision of cost for the SECC 2011 to Rs 4893.60 crore. It is strange that without getting any quantifiable data on caste, the SECC 2011 was declared ‘completed’ by the government. The timeline of 12th Five Year Plan is over now and we are yet to see any data on caste census.
The field data from this exercise was surprising. The SECC 2011 came out with 46,73,034 distinct caste names, including sub-caste, synonyms, surnames, gotra. The union cabinet in its meeting on 16 July 2015 decided to constitute an expert group under the leadership of Arvind Panagariya, the deputy chairman of Niti Aayog. Nothing actually happened after that on this front.
Professor Panagariya is no longer the deputy chairman of the Niti Aayog. After quitting this assignment, he joined his old position at Columbia University. The expert group never met to discuss the caste census as it was never constituted. This was accepted by the government in a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha. Hence, there was no possibility of the panel ever submitting its report.
So can we safely say that the caste census is dead?
What may be the possible reason for so many mistakes in data collection? Was there a design fault in the data collection, as the Registrar General of India explains, or is it about some uncomfortable facts that are emerging from the census? Does it have the potential to destabilise the Hindu-Muslim binary? The most potent, and may be deliberate, mistake in the SECC 2011 is that the whole exercise was not part of the decadal census.
The decadal census is done by the RGI who also holds the office of the Census Commissioner of India. This decadal census is done with the mandate from the Census Act of 1948. The protection of the Act is crucial as this prevents citizens from furnishing any wrong information. At the same time, the enumerator can be prosecuted if found guilty of any wrongdoing in noting down the given information.
The easiest way to enumerate caste would have been to add a column in 2011 decadal census. It’s strange that the government decided to do a separate caste census and spent around Rs 5,000 crore.
The SECC was done by inexperienced daily wagers, anganwadi workers and NGO staff because government teachers were not allowed to be deployed for the same (under the Right to Education Act). The exercise was deprived of the knowledge about the local society and the social structures that government teachers bring.
It was also a wrong decision to hand over the work of data collection to the state governments because they lacked experience. The SECC was conducted non-synchronously between 2011 and 2016. This is not how census should be conducted. The decadal census is done synchronously to avoid duplications that happen due to migrations.
This brings the issue of intention. It was never an intention of the Manmohan Singh government to conduct the caste census. On 6 and 7 May 2010 during a short-notice discussion, which eventually continued for two days, the Lok Sabha unanimously supported the inclusion of caste in the census. It seems that the SECC was a ploy to ditch this consensus. Modi government was also in a position to stop the SECC in 2014 and conduct a new caste census. But it continued with the SECC. The whole exercise was destined to fail.
Without any caste data, policymaking is like the blind fishing. Officials have to make polices for OBCs, they need to provide them loan and scholarship without knowing their actual numbers and their socio-economic and educational condition. The union government gives grant to the state government for OBC welfare without knowing their numbers in respective states. Currently, the practice is to provide central funds based on the total population.
Also read: What did OBC Narendra Modi do for the OBCs?
What policymakers still use is the 1931 caste census data. The Mandal Commission had estimated that OBCs constitute 52 per cent of the Indian population, based on the 1931 census data. It had recommended inclusion of caste in the census.
Without fresh data, the caste issues are resolved through muscle power and agitations. This is one of the reasons for violent protests by intermediate castes for inclusion in the OBC list. Without quantifiable data on caste, no caste can be excluded from the OBC list. Since Mandal Commision report was implemented in 1990, not a single caste has been excluded from the OBC list because there is no supporting data to show that some of them are no longer backward.
Modi government is promising an OBC census in 2021. This will again be a huge mistake. There are different central and state lists for the OBCs. Seven states have more than one list for the backward classes. So, it will not be possible to agree on a consensus list for the OBCs. It will be prudent to enumerate all castes in the decadal census in 2021 as it was done in 1931. The correct way out is to have a separate column for caste in decadal census.
The author is a senior journalist.