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Earlier this week, an all-party delegation from Bihar met the Prime Minister to demand the inclusion of a caste headcount in India’s decennial population census. Information on Schedule Castes (SC) and Schedule Tribes (ST), along with sub-castes and tribes, has been part of our census since 1951. The demand is to extend it to every person, irrespective of religion and social group. This demand is not new. In fact, it was accepted by the Centre in May 2011; however, since the 2011 census was already over, the government included the caste question in its Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC).

Although caste data was collected as part of the SECC, it was separated immediately after enumeration for analysis by a panel constituted by the government. The Arvind Panagariya committee, tasked with completing the enumeration of castes in July 2015, did nothing and the fate of caste and sub-caste information gathered by the SECC remains unknown.

From a purely academic and policy point of view, the collection of such data makes sense. It is not just necessary to understand people’s socio-economic status by caste and sub-caste, but can also be valuable in designing policies for affirmative action and redistributive justice. All census exercises before our independence, starting from 1872, had a provision to collect information on caste, race and tribe. This was retained only for SCs and STs after 1947.

That a caste column already exists in our population census and has been canvassed as part of the SECC implies that today’s seeming reluctance on the government’s part is not based on technical or administrative difficulties. Rather, it is political. While most groups and parties demanding a caste census have not spelt out a political purpose, it is amply clear that the idea is to push for more reservations for Other Backward Class (OBC ) groups. Currently, there is a cap of 50% on reserved seats for government jobs and admission to central educational institutions. However, this limit has now been breached with an additional 10% quota for economically weaker sections (EWS) on top of the 49.5% reservation (27% OBC, 15% SC and 7.5% ST) provided on the basis of caste. Calls to expand reservations to cover a larger proportion of the nation’s population are primarily coming from OBC groups. Most sample surveys have suggested that OBC groups constitute a significantly greater share of our population—probably over 40%—than their current quota of 27%.

Although administratively clubbed together as one group, OBC membership is large and heterogenous, with vast intra-caste differences in socio-economic conditions. This varies within and across states. There is some evidence to suggest that better-off groups among OBC castes have cornered a disproportionately large share of seats reserved for OBCs. This has opened up the possibility of sub-classification of various caste groups among OBCs. The National Democratic Alliance government has set up a committee for such sub-classification. This exercise is likely to lead to political turmoil once its report is made available. A fear among dominant OBC groups of losing job opportunities can only be allayed by increasing the overall OBC quota.

The absence of up-to-date caste data has not prevented demands from various social groups for quotas in public employment and admission to central educational institutions. Over the last decade, we have witnessed large mobilizations by Jats, Patels and Marathas seeking reservations, with some protests turning violent. These demands weren’t based on scientific evidence on the size of those groups or their relative level of deprivation vis-à-vis OBC, SC or ST groups. Protests are mainly a result of shrinking job opportunities in the private sector and declining or stagnating incomes in agriculture. With India’s economy slowing in recent years, even before the pandemic, such demands are likely to intensify regardless of data.

In a society where caste pervades every aspect of the economic, social and political spheres, data on castes is an essential tool to analyse and design policies for affirmative action and redistribution. The availability of data on religion was useful in highlighting the relative deprivation of minorities, as done by the Sachar committee. The segregation of Indian society along caste lines in property relations, occupational structure and human development outcomes is a reality that cannot be wished away. An apt way to deal with it is to be better equipped with data, be it on caste or religion. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is not a luxury for our policymakers.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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