The Union cabinet has approved changes to the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a move that could add nearly a hundred new castes to the category nationwide and make the ongoing caste census easier.

The cabinet on Wednesday also gave its nod to a draft law to curb malpractices in higher education.

The National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) had advised the government to amend the list of OBCs in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and West Bengal, the government said in a statement. “Accordingly, the ministry of social justice and empowerment would make amendments in the central list."

NCBC member Shakeel-uz-Zaman Ansari said the decision “will help the government move ahead with the categorization of castes under the socio-economic caste-based census which it is working on".

India’s first census of castes since 1931 is due to be released this year. It is meant to improve the execution of various welfare programmes for disadvantaged groups, particularly a proposed law on food security.

A person familiar with the development said the new list will not only include new castes but also the alternative names of the same castes in various states, as well as spelling corrections of some caste names.

“The number of additions could be as high as 100 (castes)," said this person, asking not to be identified.

“Major changes have happened in Kerala, Maharashtra and West Bengal," Ansari said. “In West Bengal, the number of OBCs has been expanded. Besides, the lists for OBCs in Jharkhand and Uttarakhand after their bifurcation from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (respectively) have been updated."

Analysts said the move could have political overtones.

“The ongoing caste census is facing opposition from several political parties and this move in some way is aimed at neutralizing that criticism. This also expresses willingness at winning new vote base or expanding the existing base," said Praveen Jha, associate professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

“But the political situation in our country is unique and such moves can take any unpredictable direction," Jha said.

The cabinet also approved amendments suggested by a parliamentary standing committee to a draft law that aims to curtail malpractices in higher education.

The Bill was initially introduced in Parliament in May 2010. It will now be called Prohibition of Unfair Practice in Higher Education Bill, 2011, and be introduced again in the winter session of Parliament, said officials at the human resource development (HRD) ministry.

The Bill proposes punishment for colleges, teachers or institute managements soliciting capitation fee, among other measures. It will cover all institutes of higher education except agricultural universities.

“This Bill is prepared on the assumption that education players are criminals, and anything built on this parameter can never be right," said a senior administrator of a university in Punjab, asking not to be identified. “Education entrepreneurs are passionate people and it is definitely discouraging as it has provisions to send educationists to jail. It will prevent private investment in education sector."

An HRD ministry official, however, said a number of complaints about malpractices are being filed, necessitating the move. “Those education entrepreneurs who are clean should not fear at all," said the official, requesting anonymity.

The cabinet also approved increasing by 50% the outlay of 250 crore under the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme, which helps entrepreneurs setting up of micro-enterprises.