Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Need for a caste-based census

Gail Omvedt in the Hindustan Times several weeks ago:

There is possibly little change since the 1931 census, which gave extensive information about caste. However, there is need for investigation: have some OBCs really become ‘affluent’? Aside from a few of their members, this is doubtful. The very fact that these are mostly rural-based groups, and the rural economy is in recognised crisis, should indicate that the average has improved. There is no point, however, in endlessly arguing. We need the data.

How does one handle a caste-based census? There has been, again, a lot of talk about the complications of the matter. The solution is simple: let everyone self-identify his or her caste. Those who want can say ‘no caste’ (in fact, this itself would be an important data from the census). Those who are out of mixed marriages or confused about their caste in anyway can also say this. A panel of experts at the State level can then make broad classifications out of the responses. There is, in other words, no great dilemma about how to do it. It only takes social will.

S. Nagesh Kumar in the Hindu yesterday:

Although the idea may not suit the political considerations of several parties, a caste-wise census could go a long way in streamlining OBC reservation. In Andhra Pradesh, representations are pending from at least 17 castes, apart from Muslims, for inclusion in the list of OBCs. Representations seeking removal of three castes from the list as they are no longer backward are also pending disposal. The Andhra Pradesh Backward Classes Commission is wary of touching these issues without current, accurate, and reliable data on their socio-economic-educational profiles.

Nagesh Kumar discusses the case of Andhra Pradesh at length. His article is worth a read just for all the interesting details he reports. For example, the state's Backward Classes Commission ordered the "Socio-Educational Economic Survey of Castes & Communities of Andhra Pradesh (SEESCCAP)" in 1994; Nagesh Kumar reports:

While carefully sidestepping the temptation of drawing conclusions from the wealth of statistics he collected, Hanurav observed in the epilogue to his report: "There is definitely a case for changing the backwardness status of some of the castes, upwards in some cases and downwards in some."

In Contemporary India: A Sociological View (excerpted here), Satish Deshpande had this to say about the missed opportunity in 2001:

... [I]nfluential [Indian] sociologists have tended to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on this issue. They have been the first to criticize the methods used and the macro-data produced to track caste inequality ... However, they have also been in the forefront of opposition to initiatives for the systematic collection of macro-level data on caste, even though they have not, by and large, shown any eagerness to suggest alternative methodologies for data collection.

In the early 1990s, for example, mauling the Mandal Commission's report for its weak database and questionable methodology had become something of a professional pastime for sociologists. But rarely were critics willing to specify what available datasets the Commission had failed to utilize, precisely how it could have improved upon its methodology, and, more generally, how it could have done a better job within the given constraints. And yet, a few years later, when the collection of caste data in the 2001 census was being mooted, the same voices were heard denouncing this proposal as not just impractical but pernicious. [...]


  1. Anonymous said...


    I have been asking the anti-reservation fanatics about this question. No one has answered me in a satisfactory manner. I am just posting here to see if I can elicit a satisfying response. Hope you don't mind me using your post for this.

    My questions to people who call for caste based census are

    How will a caste based census help us understand if a particular caste belongs to a particular section (like OBC/SC/ST)? Do we have a scientific method, based on researching various socio biological issues, that will quantify what Gail Omvedt calls "vecome affluent"? If yes, did the research dig deep into the racism that existed for more than 3000 years and made a thorough analysis of the socio-biological effects of it? If we don't have such a research, a caste based census will only lead to different interpretation by different people based on what is suitable for them. Essentially, we will be moving from one arbitrary system to another arbitrary system. If we are only going to follow an arbitrary approach, I would support an arbitrary approach which errs on the side of inclusion than exclusion. I know this question will elicit many vague replies. But if I can get one valid answer answering my questions, it is worth all the typing :-). Once again, sorry for using your space for my question.