Caste-based census: Will it serve the purpose?

Next June, India will embark upon its first caste-based census since independence, a gargantuan exercise involving 2.5 million officials who will record the names, addresses and castes of India’s nearly 1.2 billion citizens over a four-month period. Photographs and fingerprints of those above 15 years will be used to create a biometric national database, based on which the government will issue national identity cards.

By Neeta Lal

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Published: Sun 19 Sep 2010, 9:44 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:32 AM

The survey — agreed upon after weeks of political wrangling — will cost the state exchequer between $ 645 and $ 860 million. Its aim, as the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government puts it, is to aid “the implementation of public policies and affirmative action among the country’s most socially disadvantaged groups”.

Ever since the proposal was shepherded through the Parliament, a vigorous debate has gripped the nation. Should India, which harbours ambitions of becoming a global superpower, undertake such a ‘regressive’ census? After all, what purpose does ‘caste’ serve in a post-modern, progressive society? And, more pertinently, couldn’t the resources of such a labour and capital-intensive exercise have been utilised better for developmental purposes? And such like.

For the uninitiated, the Indian caste system is a method of social stratification which defines citizens by hereditary groups. According to the tenets of Hinduism, people are born into four main castes – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, in descending order. These broad groups are further fragmented into thousands of sub-castes associated with some traditional occupation. The pro-caste census lobby sees nothing wrong with caste as a census parameter as they feel an Indian identity is defined by religion anyway.

Besides, they iterate, the very existence of a Ministry of Social Justice, tasked with OBC (Other Backward Castes) welfare, proves that caste is already a determinant in political decision making and governance.

Be that as it may, if one goes by past experiences, then the outcome of such census exercises is usually flawed and their results skewed. The experience of the last caste census in 1931, conducted under British rule, suggested that accuracy in collecting caste data is well-nigh impossible. Ambitious voters are invariably tempted to upgrade themselves socially and misrepresent themselves by pretending to belong to a superior caste. In fact, such was the confusion that prevailed during the last census that it had to be aborted midway.

This time too, there is scant reason to believe that such a tabulation will project the correct caste picture in India. On the contrary, it is more likely to lead to demands from communities to be categorised as OBCs (other backward classes) to reap official benefits already available to people who are socially disadvantaged. In any case, the Indian Constitution had envisaged reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SCs and STs) only for the first 10 years after the Indian independence in 1947. So why should reservations or positive discrimination in education and jobs continue till six decades later?

What is also disquieting is that the census will likely provide an impetus to divisive politicians who thrive on reinforcing caste identities to fatten their vote banks or incite clashes. Ergo, the census results may lead to a further mushrooming of caste-based parties. Such politics doesn’t augur well for a vibrant democracy like India’s as it will fester casteism, legitimise castes and create cleavages in society. Social scientists such as Marc Galanter have argued “that the census recording of social precedence is a device of colonial domination, designed to undermine as well as to disprove Indian nationhood”.

Galanter’s thesis emphasises that “even assuming that caste data are relevant, enumeration of the population on the basis of caste is bound to be vitiated by vote-bank and reservation politics, leading to the inflation of population figures and the suppression or distortion of vital information on employment, education and economic status, among other things”.

Rather than relying on retrogressive methods like a caste census, the UPA government would do well to adopt a decentralised, multi-disciplinary approach to caste enumeration involving all the stakeholders in the process. The Census, which will be a centralised operation is not the appropriate vehicle to enumerate something as local and complex as castes.

The twin aims of good governance — empowerment and inclusiveness — should transcend caste as the basic criterion for growth. They should instead focus on other economic and social parameters like education, health and employment.

So if the UPA government is indeed serious about inclusive growth, and spreading the fruits of economic prosperity to the disempowered across swathes of the country, it ought to craft a better paradigm than a caste census.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist

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