Saturday, August 28, 2010

Whither Caste Census - issues and options

We have been reading alot whether 'caste' should be included in the ongoing Census 2011 or not, lately and here's my take on this issue:
(I wish to highlight various issues, both for and against, taking up ethnographiv census survey before giving my opinion)
Why it shouldn’t be taken up
1. It is retrogressive step and will continue reinforcing ‘imagined communities’ (Benedict Anderson 1983).
2. It is a colonial creation. The institution of census (alongwith caste enumeration) was one of the outcomes of 1857 uprising so that a knowledge of the ‘natives’ could provide allies an insurance against the possibility of such uprising in future. In that sense it’s not just for ‘intellectual curiosity’ but solidified hitherto fluid identities.
3. There is an apprehension that Other Backward Classes (OBC) lobbyists may ask for increase in OBC reservation if the actual OBC count turns out to be more during 2011 census than 52% as estimated by Mandal Commission. The 27% reservation for OBC is based on a quota set at 50% of the OBC population after excluding the creamy layer (those not poor or backward) from original estimated 52% of OBC population.
4. At a lesser vocal levels, a similar apprehension that reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) may be demanded to be increased from the present 15% & 7% respectively if their numbers turn out to be more than the proportionate assumptions presently followed.
5. There is another argument that the development dynamics of Nehruvian model of modernization characterized by land reforms & green revolution has changed the socio-political fabric in rural India and has led to a situation where the ‘backward’ class are in social control, dominate politics and a significant part of rural economy. The caste dynamics, in a traditional sense has blurred thus over a period.
However, most of these apprehensions and perhaps rightly so are based on the perceived direct linkage between the percentage of OBC, SC & ST in total population as will emerge from the Census 2011 and reservation.
6. The most important reason to my mind is the ‘logistics problems & challenges’ in taking up such an enumeration (Despande & Mary John- EPW, June 19th 2010). Caste has no precise definition and perhaps, can’t be classified in an objective measurable category such as income, age, gender & education and is rather subjective depending upon various sub-categorization within a broad identified caste. The major issue will be how the enumerator would classify the castes as informed during the census. At very conservative estimates, there are more than 5000 castes within Hindus and then there are categorization among Hindu converts, Muslims and some other religions too. How would the enumerator place a particular caste as informed is a major worry and a serious logistic challenge among the census officials.
Arguments in favor of Caste Census:
1. While there may be reasons to be apprehensive, some argue that there exists well documented research and empirical data linking caste based inequalities to Human Development Index (HDI) and dimensions of well being including basic health & education, income, social exclusion and access to employment. While it can be argued that some of these exclusions and deprivations are income based and exist in castes not classified as OBC or SC/ST, the fact remains that the degree of co-relation between caste and HDI is rather striking and can’t be wished away. If it is clearly emerging that most of the inequalities are not imagined and reflect social processes and intrinsically linked to caste based exposure/deprivations, inclusion of caste details in the census becomes imperative.
2. The present classification of SC, ST and to a large extent of OBC is based on 1931 census data and it is extremely important to have the latest data if any fresh exercise is to be taken up to reclassify in order to sanitize the caste categorization from exclusion and inclusion errors or to remove creamy layers from among those included based on income or education. Obtaining accurate data for proper targeting is essential.
3. With my little knowledge and interest in Demography (I indeed took couple of courses including ‘survey problems in Demography’ and ‘research methods in Demography’ during my MPP in Princeton!), I personally am of the opinion that caste enumeration is a must to (i) correlate all that has been discussed so far and been feared of caste enumeration – a causal linkage will clearly establish whether our welfare policies have yielded any results so far and what should be the direction of reservation in future; (ii) it will help us enable a policy decision whether caste should be the basis for reservation or should it be economic reasons; (iii) it will throw up so so much data for mining the linkage between caste and other categories such as education, income, employment, housing and so on and will (iv) help take decisions to weed out exclusion and inclusion errors in caste categorizations and caste based reservation.

The logistics problem, in my opinion can be taken care of. At a central level, the Registrar General of India (RGI) office should list down all possible castes and sub castes. A system somewhat similar to the new system of National classification of Occupations (NCO-04), which follows the hierarchical structure of Division, Subdivision, Group, Family and Occupations, can be devised for accommodating all caste references in a scientific manner. The enumerator should just write the caste ( & category as informed to him/her during the survey) and once it’s fed in the system, it should automatically be classified in the appropriate category. A great deal of research and care is required to mine such a huge data and assistance of Ministry of Social Welfare should be taken by RGI at the earliest. It becomes even more crucial as the actual survey is going to commence soon.

Caste based enumeration need not be linked with reservation. The logic behind extending reservations on caste lines is almost getting abused for political reasons and is being exploited by the creamiest among the ‘reserved’. We do need to stand up and take a decision regarding the policy of extending reservations blindly. The number of castes in the category requiring reservation has only been increasing and its time we should delink the two and for that, a caste based census is required. I am in favor of caste based census as that’s the only way one can argue, based on hard data, the need to have a caste based reservation or otherwise.

The Group of Minister (GoM) gave its nod on August 11, 2010 to include caste in census from biometric stage of enumeration. The GoM, headed by Finance Minister, recommended to the Union Cabinet for inclusion of caste in census from biometric stage which is set to commence from December once the head count is over.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with Arvind that we need a caste census. What cannot be measured cannot be acted upon, efficiently at least. Even the hypothesis that caste is highly correlated with economic conditions (at lower levels, undoubtedly a fact but not unambigious at middle levels)needs data to be proved or disproved. Right now, reservation and everything else is a matter of emotion and political muscle. Let facts speak for themselves and then, a just society (we like to be seen as such, to some extent) should decide how to frame its policies to benefit the poorest without opportunities. Let the data be robust, scientifically compiled, using international experts and our IT prowess, to the minutest details. Every 10 years, we can judge the impact of our policies. When the caste-economic status breaks down completely, or individuals are unable to state which caste they and their parents belong to, because of urbanisation, integration and intermingling, this data will become irrelevant.