Cabinet approves caste-based counting

Cabinet approves caste-based counting

New Delhi: India will launch a nationwide exercise to count people according to caste—the first time it will do so in eight decades—in June. The caste census will help improve the implementation of welfare programmes and provide the basis for moving towards a more just society, according to some experts. Others called the move regressive.

“The caste enumeration would be conducted between June and September 2011. The cost involved in the process will be worked out in due course," home minister P. Chidambaram told reporters after a cabinet meeting at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s residence. Although he did not elaborate the method of enumeration, an official note said that “a suitable legal regime for collection of data on castes would be formulated in consultation with the ministry of law and justice".

The caste count will be conducted in a phased manner after the ongoing census is completed by March next year, Chidambaram said.

Once finalized, the caste headcount is expected to influence reservation policies and welfare measures. The Centre and state governments independently provide reservation for the other backward classes (OBCs) in government jobs and educational institutions.

In its manifesto for the 2009 general election, the ruling Congress said it was “deeply committed to pursuing affirmative action for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in the private sector. It has already initiated a national debate on this issue. It also pledges to carve out a reservation for the economically weaker sections of all communities without prejudice to existing reservations for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs."

Although political parties informally reserve parliamentary and assembly seats for OBCs in elections, caste data is expected to help the selection process.

The last such census for the entire population was carried out in 1931, although caste identity has occasionally been sought as part of India’s 10-yearly population surveys undertaken since independence.

Around 2.5 million census officials will spend a year classifying India’s population of around 1.2 billion people according to gender, religion, occupation and education. The government will also constitute an expert group to classify the caste/tribe returns after the enumeration is completed.

“The office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner India would hand over the details of the castes/tribes returned in the enumeration to the proposed expert group," the official note said.

Regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which have a strong support base among the OBCs, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, have been demanding a caste-based census, saying there was no authenticated data with the government on the caste break-up of the country.

Though the home ministry was initially opposed to the idea, citing practical difficulties, a group of ministers had been set up on the issue following pressure from the smaller parties that back the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government from outside.

“Every point of view has been accommodated and the timetable drawn up. We hope this will be a satisfactory arrangement," the home minister said.

Critics point out that the process is open to fraud and could lead to social tensions. “It is a very bad move, it is regressive, not democracy or secularism," said Ashish Bose, a renowned demographer and former professor at the Institute of Economic Growth.

But T.K. Oommen, an eminent social scientist, countered the argument, saying that in the Indian census system, what respondents said was always accepted.

“The enumerator has no right to decide the identity of the person. This census is not for specifying caste or religion. The issue is to understand caste clusters, not specific jatis (castes). The implication level of backwardness can be placed. This data will present a slightly better picture in totality. Totality will reveal itself so that there can be more reliable policy," he said.

However, Bose rejected the argument that the caste figures would help the government in implementing its schemes better. “Nonsense. If the census enumerators can ask questions like what is the income of a person, how much of land he owns, one can get an idea of his economic status. If we get these figures, one can determine whether the person is above or below the poverty line. Once that happens, the government can always target the socio-economic groups it wants," he said.

He also warned: “This is messing things up. This will cause utter confusion, it could lead to social tensions, caste wars. This move will be most harmful for secularism, democracy and peaceful life in India."

Oommen said: “Intent is very simple. Proportionate reservation should be provided. Still, it will be merit-cum-identity. It will enable some basis for moving towards a just society."

Elizabeth Roche contributed to this story.