The Narendra Modi government has released the 20th livestock census figures. We now know the number of cows, goats, pigs, yaks, camels and other domesticated animals India currently has. This data with deep insight and statistical details can help the Modi government formulate informed policies.
But this is not the case with humans. Indian men, women, and people from the third gender are not enumerated in a manner that would shape government policies in the best possible way. India will soon have its decadal Census, in 2021. The preparation for this mammoth exercise has already started. But we do not know whether the Modi government will collect all sociological data of Indian citizens or not. In September last year, then-Home Minister Rajnath Singh had said that the BJP government would collect data on the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Census 2021. But the current home ministry under Amit Shah has not given any such assurance or undertaking.
Shah’s ministry was evasive when JD(U) MP Kaushalendra Kumar asked Parliament ‘whether the proper caste census will be conducted in 2021’. The government merely said that “the castes and tribes which are specifically notified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (will be) enumerated”. Some media reports say that the Census 2021 form doesn’t have the OBC category question.
Importance of data
Outlining the purpose of its 20th livestock census, the Ministry of Agriculture said: “For proper planning and formulation of any programme meant for bringing further improvement in (a) sector and its effective implementation and monitoring their impact, data are required at every possible administrative and geographic level.”
This holds true for India’s social policies, too, which development economist and JNU professor Jayati Ghosh says are “a key instrument in the process of development”.
Independent India hasn’t had a caste census. The last available data on castes is from the 1931 census, carried out by the British. A Socio Economic and Caste Census conducted in 2011 was released by the Modi government in 2016 “without the caste data”.
India’s Constitution, in its chapter on Fundamental Rights, Article 16(4), says that the backward classes will be provided reservation in state services, provided they are not adequately represented. For this purpose, the collection of caste-related data is required, and India’s Census can be the only tool for that.
Even the United Nations has formulated a model norm for conducting the census. It also suggests collecting comprehensive details about communities and citizenship characters. In the case of India, that pertains to the collection of data regarding castes and tribes.
Why India needs caste data
If the government needs to come up with informed social policies, it needs data on how the societies are constructed (or segregated) by collating the data on caste. These are some of the reasons why Census 2021 must definitely have caste-related data.
- The premise of all census is to collect maximum details about the given population. Countries usually collect data on religion, race, ethnicities, language, gender, marital status, economic status, and other factors. The purpose of the census, as elaborated by the Census Commissioner of India, “is much more than simply a head count of the people of the country”. “It is an exercise to collect reliable data on essential characteristics, such as population, economy activity, social and cultural aspects, migration and demography.” Therefore, it’s pertinent to collect data on caste because it is one of the most important Indian social realities.
- India has numerous policies based on caste, so it’s always better to have data on caste. The central and state governments implement quota for OBCs and economically weaker sections (upper castes not covered by the SC, ST and OBC quotas). But reservations to various social groups are now being provided without knowing their share in the population (Marathas and Jats at the state level or upper castes at the central level). In the case of Maratha reservation, the Bombay High Court had initially turned down the proposal of the state government citing the absence of any data to prove that the Marathas are backward. To overcome this hurdle, the state government reconstituted the Maharashtra Commission for the Backward Classes, which conducted a survey and submitted a report showing the Marathas as backward.
- The Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission, also known as the Mandal Commission, had faced this problem when it did not have updated data on caste while formulating its report recommending reservation for the OBCs in 1980. It had to depend on the 1931 census data. It recommended that in the next decadal census, caste data must be collected. At this moment, India’s reservation policies are based on data that are 90 years old.
- The central government gives grants for OBC development to the states without knowing the number or economic status of the OBCs in that state. The central government uses the total population data to arrive at how much grant to provide. This is blatantly wrong and ridiculous.
- As the government does not have any empirical data on caste or their backwardness, whenever any caste group launches an agitation for quota or for itself to be considered ‘backward’, the government fails to counter their demand. It is always a political decision to accept or reject such demands. Knowing this fully well, caste groups always flex muscle to get quota benefits. This is the reason for such agitations taking violent forms.
- Without caste data, no social group can be excluded from the OBC list. So, the National Commission for Backward Castes has not excluded a single caste group from the OBC list since its inception.
- Lastly, without any data on Caste, we would never know which social groups are over-represented in the power structures and therefore cannot formulate policies for diversity and inclusion.
Let’s hope that the 2021 Census collects data on all castes, otherwise government policies would continue to be politically driven, without taking the real picture into consideration, and dominant caste groups will continue to use the absence of data to prop up unjust demands for reservation.