Caste is a reality in India one cannot wish away. For centuries, it served as an instrument of exploitation and discrimination; a form of social injustice that is being addressed by successive governments since independence with varying outcomes. There is a strong case for undertaking a caste census in the country to enable policymakers to fine-tune the affirmative programmes so that the benefits reach the needy sections. Since the entire architecture of India’s reservation policy is based on caste, a clear enumeration of population based on caste is required to assess the exact ground situation. Accurate data on the caste composition is needed to maximise the gains of policies such as reservation in education and employment. It is no surprise then that during the recent debate in Parliament, the entire opposition advocated caste census. Given the Sangh Parivar’s reported view that the caste census might end up highlighting the fault lines of the Hindu society and thereby hamper its vision of creating a unified monolithic vote bank, the BJP is yet to take a public stand on the issue. A caste census was last held in 1931 and discontinued thereafter. Every census in independent India from 1951 to 2011 has published data on the population of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but not on other castes. As a result, there is no proper estimate for the population of OBCs. In the past, the national parties, including the Congress and the BJP, had opposed its reintroduction ostensibly on the ground that enumeration will lead to perpetuation of caste identities.
But the stark reality is that caste continues to be a key determinant in public affairs and access to resources. The UPA government held a Socio-Economic Caste Census in 2011, but the data was not released. In the absence of updated data, political parties and public institutions extrapolate from the 1931 Census and National Sample Survey to formulate policies. Accurate data on caste will help both political parties and the governments in plugging the gaps and leaks in the welfare schemes and improving social outreach. A caste-based census is required because in at least 30 States and Union Territories, the reservation for backward classes has crossed the upper limit of 50% set by the Supreme Court. There is a need to be flexible about this ceiling, given the socio-economic realities. The States must have the freedom and flexibility to evaluate the backwardness of various vulnerable sections and decide on the quantum of quotas in tune with the ground situation. In this context, the recent passage of the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament, restoring the rights of State governments to make their own OBC lists, is a welcome development.
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