The caste count

August 19th, 2010

By Nirmala Sitharaman , Census 2010 is the seventh, Independent India,
planning and formulation of policies Share Buzz up!Census 2010 is the
seventh in Independent India and the 15th since India had its first
census in 1872. It is the largest such activity in the world which
will cover 600,000 villages across 640 districts and 7,742 towns. A
total of 2.5 million census officials will knock at the doors of 240
million households to do a head count of 1.2 billion people. This
census will cost the state exchequer over Rs 220.9 billion.

The decennial Indian Census, conducted without a break since 1872, is
a credible source of information on various vital statistics of our
country — economic activity, literacy and education, housing and
household amenities, urbanisation, fertility and mortality, scheduled
castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs), language, migration, disability
and other socio, cultural and demographic data. It is the only
available primary data at the village, town and ward level.

The importance of such data for planning and formulation of policies
for the Central and state governments cannot be over stated. The
demographic data which emerges from the census also forms the basis of
the delimitation/reservation of constituencies for parliamentary,
Assembly, panchayat and local bodies.

In India, the census data is used for more complex matters in
comparison with the UK census after which it is broadly fashioned. In
the UK, John Rickman, who managed his country’s first four census
beginning 1801, used the census to ascertain the number of men who
will be able to fight the Napoleonic Wars. Even before he commenced
the census, Rickman had, in 1798, stated 12 reasons why the census was
important. Two among the 12 are relevant to India today: “A census
would indicate the government’s intention to promote public good” and
“the need to plan the production of corn and thus know the number of
people who had to be fed”.

Our Constitution underlines the need for affirmative action “to
promote public good”. In order to enable this, it has provided for
reservations for the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes. The
reservation system in our country relies on quotas which numerically
correspond with a group’s share in the total population. These quotas
are applicable for education, for government jobs and for welfare
schemes. The scheduled castes constitute nearly 160 million and hence
they receive 15 per cent of the quota; the tribal population is
estimated to be 70 million and hence a seven per cent reservation.

Under Article 340 of our Constitution it is obligatory for the
government to promote the welfare of other backward classes (OBCs).
The First Backward Classes Commission (Kaka Kalelkar, 1951) and the
subsequent Second Backward Classes Commission (Mandal, 1979) gave
their inputs. The Kalelkar Commission identified 2,399 castes as
backward and 837 among them as most backward. In fact, it recommended
undertaking a caste-wise enumeration in the 1961 Census.

The Mandal Commission covered more than 3,000 castes under the OBC
category. It inferred without sufficient primary data that Hindu and
non-Hindu “other backward classes” constituted nearly 52 per cent of
the Indian population. However, the National Sample Survey put the
figure at 32 per cent. Owing to the legal constraint that total
reservation should not exceed 50 per cent, and with 15 per cent and
seven per cent already given to SCs and STs, the OBCs received 27 per
cent. In a few states like Tamil Nadu, reservations had already
exceeded the 50 per cent ceiling.

In two recent cases the Supreme Court has voiced its concern on the
absence of quantifiable data. In July 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in
favour of Tamil Nadu continuing the 69 per cent reservation for SCs,
STs, BCs and MBCs for another one year in jobs and educational
institutions. It is important to note here that Chief Justice of India
S.H. Kapadia and Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan directed the state to
submit quantifiable data on backward classes for the determination of
a fresh quota limit. They also directed the state Backward Classes
Commission to consider the issue based on quantifiable data in respect
of the concerned communities.

Earlier, in March 2007, passing an interim order (Ashok Kumar Thakur
vs the Union of India), the Supreme Court held that the 1931 Census
could not be a determinative factor for identifying OBCs for the
purpose of reservations. 1931 was indeed the last census in which
information on caste was collected.

In both the above instances the need for data was in the context of
reservation in higher educational institutions. This could also extend
to jobs, particularly in the public sector. The need for quantifiable
data is desperately felt in extending government’s welfare schemes

Castes and their backwardness varies by states. The Backward Classes
Commission in each state has to inquire, study and then categorise
castes based on their backwardness. Levels of backwardness for any one
caste, for instance, is not comparable even in neighbouring districts,
leave aside states.

So in the context of Census 2010 two questions stood out for
policymakers to address: Where is the database for education, jobs and
welfare schemes? How does this database get collected without
affecting the integrity of the headcount? Integrity of headcount
depends on reliability of data and its verifiability. Respect for
privacy too could not be compromised.

A householder can have the last word on declaring his caste. However,
he cannot be the authority to decide whether his caste is backward in
his area. Only a constitutionally-empowered commission in his state
can do that. So, to obtain primary reliable data, the census
enumerator could ask the householder to respond on his caste. However,
he should not be asked of its backwardness. As Union home minister P.
Chidambaram observed in Parliament, “The enumerator is not an
investigator or verifier. And it must be clearly understood that the
enumerator has no training or expertise to classify the answer as OBC
or otherwise”. After all, huge sums of taxpayers’ money cannot be
spent on welfare schemes without knowing the number of intended
beneficiaries. In the name of good governance, how else can we plan
and account for our actions?

- Nirmala Sitharaman is spokesperson of the
Bharatiya Janata Party. The views expressed in this column are her own.


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