Arun Jaitley refutes charges of withholding caste census data
Cabinet approves setting up of an expert group under Arvind Panagariya to classify and compile the data
New Delhi: Battling growing demands and allegations around making the caste data from the Socio-economic and Caste Census (SECC) public, finance minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday refuted allegations that the central government withheld information.
He said the census had thrown up about 4.6 million categories of castes, sub-castes, surnames, clans, etc., and, as per the Union cabinet decision of 19 May 2011, it was “shared with the states” around nine months ago for their verification and response.
“As of now, most of the states have not given their response,” the finance minister said.
In this connection, the Union cabinet on Thursday approved the setting up of an expert group under the chairmanship of Arvind Panagariya, vice-chairman, NITI Aayog, to classify and compile the caste data thrown up by SECC.
Briefing reporters after the cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Jaitley said the central government will look to release the data faster depending on the response from states.
“The centre will have an expert committee, which will finally compile it (caste data) and after that it will be made public. The committee set up under the NITI Aayog vice-chairman will classify this caste data and after finishing the task, at an appropriate time, it will be made public,” he said.
Ahead of the crucial Bihar assembly elections expected later this year, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and his predecessor Lalu Prasad have accused the central government of not publicizing information collected in SECC. On Thursday, the Congress party too joined the chorus to demand the release of the data along with the Left parties.
SECC, a first of its kind survey in seven decades, is considered to be politically crucial given that a detailed caste break-up could assist political parties to identify electoral groups based on their caste leanings. With caste being a dominant factor of politics in India, especially during elections, the data could prove to be a key political issue.
In Bihar, for instance, almost all political parties draw strength from different castes. While Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad draws support from the Yadav community, Nitish Kumar’s “social engineering” is based on the politics of Mahadalits.
The survey was conducted during 2011-12 and the government released provisional data from the census on 3 July but it did not give detailed caste data.
Prasad led a march in Patna on Monday to press for his demand to make the caste census public. Kumar too has accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi of “double standards” on the subject.
Political parties, both in Bihar as well as nationally, have raised concerns over the delay in releasing the data.
“The central government said they gave the data (to states), but we do not have it. Therefore, RJD, JD(U) questioned them. If they have given it, then why don’t they release it themselves? Even if they are giving it (to states) and the states are not releasing it, then let the state be in the wrong box, central government should do it,” JD(U) spokesperson K.C Tyagi said.
“The data wasn’t given. Even if the central government says they gave it, why did they? This should have been a part of the census data and should have been released together,” said Prem Chand Gupta, RJD leader.
In the national capital too, the government was criticized for the delay. “We demand that the caste-related information from the survey should be made public immediately...it has been 14 months since the data was collected and it should not take this long to release it,” Jairam Ramesh, senior Congress leader and former rural development minister, told reporters.
On Thursday, Jaitley explained that the cabinet headed by former prime minister Manmohan Singh had decided that SECC will be part of the census in 2011. It was also decided that the rural development and urban development ministries will be the nodal ministries for the economic data. For the caste data, social welfare and tribal ministries will be nodal, Jaitley said.
“After the data came, it was sent to these ministries. The rural development ministry processed and prepared a report. It was made public few days back (3 July). Urban development ministry is working on the data,” Jaitley said.
“Caste data is essential for all political parties before the Bihar elections because they would want to see what kind of alignment they can have,” said Shashi Sharma, head of the department of political science at Patna University. “The issue is that this time too the Bihar elections will be fought over the caste issue as no political party till now has given any roadmap for development,” she added.
Srishti Gupta contributed to this story.
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