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Are Indians really in love with statistics?

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
Filed on May 16, 2010

Indians love crunching numbers. Before live coverage of cricket, statisticians were regulars on sports pages of newspapers. They have moved to TV channels ó proving that Indians donít tire of cricket statistics. When MSD is run out, statisticians dig up instances of former Indian captains also being run out.

If a No 11 batter enters double digits when chasing an ODI target – statisticians are ready with details of the number of times this has happened in the past. Electronic Voting Machines abbreviated counting of votes in India almost a decade ago. Earlier, ballot boxes were opened over a couple of days when TV channels ran live programmes for 60 hours or so. Results trickled in and anchors, pundits and reporters impressed viewers with in depth knowledge of the Indian social maze.

They used shock and awe tactics flooring viewers with numbers about psychological regions and constituencies. They had numbers for everything – economic profile, schools and colleges, households with electricity or access to clean water in each constituency. But more importantly, all knew the caste profile right down to the smallest administrative unit.

People became familiar with caste names like Ahir, Vanniyar and Kolu. They learnt Marathas were a community while Marathwada a region in Maharashtra and the two had little in common. People were also told that caste profiled in different regions in states differed thus exhibiting different political behaviour. Election analysis on TV and newspapers ensured Indians becoming amateur sociologists and demographers.

Caste was traditionally significant in India. Its significance increased after 1990 when recommendations of the long-forgotten Mandal Commission were implemented. The decision of job reservations for OBCs also spawned a new power elite dominated by OBC leaders. Upper Castes leaders who hitherto dominated politics were forced on the backseat in every political party.

In 2006, the National Sample Survey suggested that percentage of OBCs was much lower than 52 per cent as given by Mandal Commission. Figures of NSS were corroborated by another survey – National Family Health Survey, which pegged the non-Muslim OBC population at 29.8 per cent.

It was clear that India’s caste matrix needed a fresh look.

No significant debate preceded the 2011 Census launched in April. Now, due to demands by political leaders across the spectrum, government will take a call on whether or not to add caste enumeration when physical counting is done in February next year. If government decides in the affirmative, it will set in process an exercise whose outcome will be the most keenly anticipated in recent times. No one knows which way the dice will roll. OBC leaders think their numbers will swell and silence whispers that the 52 per cent figure is inflated.

Upper Caste leaders, less boisterous in demanding caste-based enumeration, see a chance to reverse the belief of a tiny minority lording over a huge majority for centuries thereby making them eligible for positive discrimination.

In India identity-based politics has a stranglehold but several contentious issues can get a quick burial if a scientifically enumerated picture of social composition is available. But the ongoing census does not generate great confidence. The fear of the State as Big Brother is a colonial remnant. Governments have done precious little to earn confidence of people – especially in rural areas. People are wary of parting with personal information to the unknown. There are 2.5 million of such unknown enumerators who are not trained in eliciting information from the skeptical.

Enumerators also have not been taught how to prevent inflation of figures and suppression or distortion of information on employment, education and economic status in the event of caste enumeration.

The government cannot opt for caste enumeration because it is politically expedient without adequate planning. Slipshod caste enumeration will cause fresh fissures because the numbers will be contested when the pack of those entitled to government benefits is shuffled. The Pandora’s box can be opened only if proper insulation is in place. Indians’ love for numbers notwithstanding!

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a political analyst based in India. For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com


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