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Home >Opinion >Views >A caste census will serve no clear worthy purpose

As we resume field work for the national census of 2021 after this summer’s covid disruption, a face-off between opposition parties and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be in the making—over caste enumeration. The Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and even BJP-ally Janata Dal (United) want it done. Population figures for different caste groups, they argue, will help identify inequities suffered by classes deemed backward and aim our welfare policies better. The legislative assembly of Bihar, a state headed by BJP ally Nitish Kumar, has even passed a resolution in favour of including caste as a data field to be filled in the process of this all-India headcount done every decade. Any enumeration of caste, however, requires the enunciation of such identities by people. Therein lies the rub. If the Centre has rebuffed entreaties to count Indians by caste, it may well have both practical and substantive reasons for it.

Given the pace at which key appointments for the sprawling exercise have been made in states, the government seems in some haste to make up for lost time. Any tweak of our census questionnaire at this stage would cause a delay we cannot afford. More importantly, such a significant shift would need deliberation, the outcome of which would be impractical to wait for. This is not to deny the proposal of a caste count its merits. Since job and education quotas go by caste classifications, this identifier does have a bearing on policy. The lack of a proper caste break-up of our population must have impaired the efficiency of our efforts at affirmative action down the decades. The last census with such details was conducted in 1931, which put groups now classified as Other Backward Classes at 52% of India’s population, a figure that is often disputed today. As the fairness of reservation slice-ups has been a matter of contention, perhaps a clearer picture would aid policymakers. Such knowledge, it has been argued, will help the country assure better life outcomes for the disadvantaged. In 2011, the aim of achieving clarity had led India’s previous Congress-led administration to conduct a Socio-Economic Caste Census, but it never released its findings. In 2015, the BJP-led government released all its data except on caste numbers, which it withheld, citing discrepancies.

Political parties that use caste platforms and calculations for electoral appeal have an obvious interest in obtaining updated numbers. Whether it will also serve the broader interests of the country well, however, is far from clear. It is true that religious affiliation is on our census form. But caste differs in a crucial aspect. To minimize its role in society, given its widely-seen baleful effects, we have long had a national consensus of sorts that it must be weakened. The state asking everyone for data on it would reinforce this particular identity. Hardened identities also tend to create social cleavages of the kind we must close. The persistence of caste identification has another effect that is not always easily visible. When caste myths get mapped onto skill perceptions, a phenomenon that has been documented, they get in the way of an efficient market for labour. Theory suggests that this would impinge on our economic performance. While it is undeniable that caste deserves deep discussion, and that our policies may need revision to enhance their efficacy, we should not count our citizens by caste unless we’re sure its benefits outweigh the risks.

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