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View PointOpinion: Concerns over caste data in census

Opinion: Concerns over caste data in census

Published: 29th Nov 2021 1:05 am

By Dr Vakulabharanam Krishna Mohan Rao

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In the contemporary world, there is increased interest in having scientific, rigorous and accurate data for a good understanding of any social, economic or political phenomenon. More so, in applied social sciences, especially in policymaking, which eventually leads to an effective policy.

Data has two sides according to the social sciences encyclopedia viz, quantitative and qualitative. They are complementary to each other and the latter makes the facts to speak to give specific policy feedback or projections to lay down a concrete plan of action. Leading higher learning institutes in the US and the UK have established Data Science Labs for Social Sciences, Quantitative Tool Labs and Poverty Labs to maintain a sound and updated database in open-source models.

In India too, the ICSSR conducts refresher courses for social researchers and policy scientists periodically. Data-driven decision-making in management sciences is quite popular today in the corporate world. To generate and understand data, a strong methodology is always a prerequisite.

No Agreed Uniformity

Coming to the question of caste data, it is to be understood that it has become a socially sensitive and emotional issue. The Census in India by the colonial regime had started on faulty lines, according to social anthropologists (Chicago School). There was a big debate in the British parliament at that time. Mapping social fabric and reality in hierarchical terms from the standpoint of colonial administration was termed as a confusingly gigantic task due to many contradictions (inner and intra).
To hold or conduct caste census in India is administratively difficult and cumbersome simply due to the absence of Registry of Castes covering the entire country and adequate knowledge base dealing with the caste census for decoding, according to the recent affidavit filed by the Union of India before the Apex Court (Maharashtra Vs Union of India).

The percentage of Backward Castes/Classes is again disputable in the absence of reliable and accurate data, which allowed politicians to play with the minds of the people. The Mandal Commission, which relied on the 1931 caste census, calculated the percentage of Backward Castes around 52%. According to the NSSO, they constitute 41%, and as per Educational Statistics on School Enrollment, it was reported to be 45%.

There is no agreed uniformity of statistical data because we never attempted to understand the importance of reliable quantifiable data.
The Socio-Economic Caste Census-2011 (SECC-11) has become a point of concern, contestation and controversy from the viewpoint of the legal framework of the institution and hence, the Central government, taking advantage of the situation, termed it as unusable and inaccurate. Sadly, politics is dominating the discourse of backwardness of castes and caste census now.

Political Overtones

Since the last decade, cutting across parties, politicians and development, analysts have been vocal in favour of ‘caste census’ as a part of general population census to get the hindsight of ‘Backwardness’ of the Backward Classes on specified parameters so as to formulate an appropriate policy mechanism for the overall progress of the community in the context of UNDP Human Development Index and Millennium Development Goals.

Unfortunately, the demand for caste census in recent times has acquired political overtones (as viewed by the BJP) with some of the non-BJP ruling States asking the BJP-led Central government to conduct caste census as a part of the 2021 general census. States such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra, Telangana and now Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assemblies have passed unanimous resolutions to this effect for a robust and comprehensive census which should reflect the ground reality. There is a valid argument for demanding this.

The States have no such ‘administrative machinery’ and ‘legislative Acts’ to carry out such census or surveys. On the other hand, the Central government has such ‘machinery’ in place since 1872 backed by the Census Act of 1948, Article 246 and serial No. 69 of the 7th Schedule, which empowers it to conduct such census or survey at any point on any subject for which the States are obliged to extend cooperation.

Hence, the States have no role in conducting any such survey on their own, legally speaking. Besides, the reliability and accuracy of data thus generated by the Centre is not only authoritative but can also withstand the scrutiny of law which has larger implications implicitly. However, the arguments put forward by the Centre in an affidavit to the Apex Court recently that it is a policy since 1951 not to hold the caste category in the census, and upheld by the BJP, surprised many as it had in 2018 promised to include caste in the census on the floor of the House.

Political analysts viewed this as a threat to the Hindu monolith which forms the basis of the BJP vote bank. It is interesting to note that the Apex Court, though fixed 50% ceiling/cap on reservations, never objected to breaking the cap, if accompanied by contemporaneous, rigorous, verifiable quantifiable data for both validation and revalidation of the claims or arguments by the States that argued for higher quota for BCs/OBCs who constitute more than 50% of their population.

Lack of Empirical Data

Of course, there is no uniformity and substance in the arguments advanced by these States in the absence of proper empirical data in support of their arguments which forced the governments to constitute the ‘Dedicated Commissions’ to determine the Socio-Economic-Educational and Employment Status of the BC/OBCs and accordingly so the political reservations; the case judgments of HC/SC on Maharashtra, MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are relevant for our better understanding.

Probably, the only State which has made litigant-free caste reservations is Tamil Nadu, which has been conducting such census, and could be an example for other States. Since the Act of 1993 could not envisage these developments, some of the States initiated enlarging the scope, powers and functions of their BC Commissions taking a cue from some of the court judgments on the issue of Dedicated Commissions though not statutory. It is pertinent to remember that the Judiciary applies rigorous scrutiny on each case independently notwithstanding the precedents.

Let us not forget about the tools aspect of such census which allows data administration to generate computational models whenever needed for any substantiation against the backdrop of availability of advanced machine learning, artificial intelligence etc which enhance the technical ambit of census or surveys.

Therefore, it is imperative to adopt modern corporate strategies where analyses and projections are based on the brute force of data allowing the data to speak, enabling us to determine the quantum of reservation and draft relevant policies to address the real concerns of BC/OBCs.

(The author is Chairman, Telangana State Commission for Backward Classes)

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