Caste and clarity

The Indian Express Posted online: Fri Aug 13 2010, 02:34 hrs
There is a thoughtfulness that informs the decennial census exercise.
This time, more than 21 lakh enumerators are tasked with conducting
what Home Minister P. Chidambaram calls “the biggest exercise since
mankind came into existence.” Yet there is a sense of a considered
exchange between enumerator and citizen to coax out the fewest
possible details to generate data for better policy-making. It is this
culture of clarity that is currently being shaken by the frenzied
politics of including caste in the census exercise.
On Thursday, Lok Sabha was adjourned with opposition parties,
including the Samajwadi Party, RJD, BJP and JD(U), demanding that
caste be included at the headcount stage. As reported in The Indian
Express, the group of ministers on caste enumeration is of the view
that caste details be taken at the biometric stage for National
Population Register. To hear it from MPs like Mulayam Singh Yadav and
Sharad Yadav, this would amount to indefinitely postponing the entire
exercise. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who heads the GoM,
clarified that the final view on modalities would be taken by the
Union cabinet. But the incident is a caution about the danger of
competitive politics precipitating decisions without discussion.

Debate has centred on how the question about caste would be posed. The
1931 census cannot be a template. India today seeks data on caste for
reasons of policy-making, and in a manner that is not in any way seen
to be legitimising caste’s ritual hierarchies. It is not clear whether
a citizen will be given a list of castes and asked if she “belongs” to
one among them, or whether she will be asked for her caste outright.
How the government goes about it will have significant consequences.
Due deliberation is important for another reason. Census 2011 takes
place amidst a worldwide debate on the utility of a traditional caste
survey once substantial databases on the population have been
compiled. Who knows, a decade on, we too may move to statistical


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