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Explained: The History, Politics and Economics of the Caste Census in India

Aug 26, 2021 1:32 PM 6 min read

Today, let's tackle a topic that is a lightning rod for endless political bickering but also holds significant economic implications of its own.

Every decade, calls for a "caste census" accompany the announcement of the decadal Census of India. With Census 2021 around the corner, this time has been no different.

What is a Caste Census?

Simply put, it would be an official enumeration of the caste break-up of the Indian population.

Historically, every Census conducted during the British Raj between 1881 and 1931 included data on caste. In 1941, this data was not published - the Census Commissioner at the time said such an undertaking would be a time-consuming and costly affair (remember that this was at the height of WW2).

Post independence, things changed. Since 1951, every decadal Census has published data only on Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), but not on other castes (aka Other Backward Classes (OBCs)). There is limited documentation on the debates between the political leaders of the time that led to this development. But this decision was reportedly taken to gradually reduce the power of social divisions, encourage the adoption of a secular state, and not succumb to the age-old British policy of “divide and rule”.

However, since the Constitution mandated the reservation of seats for SCs and STs in panchayats, municipalities, Parliament and Legislative Assemblies (Articles 243T, 243D, 330 and 332), non-OBC data collection proceeded as before in each Population Census.


Mandal Calling

As was the case with most aspects of Indian life, the Mandal Commission fundamentally altered the way the country viewed caste. The Mandal Report, submitted in 1980, extrapolated statistics from the 1931 Census “on an assumption of uniform growth for all religious groups and communities” and reported that 52% of the country belonged to OBCs. Crucially, it recommended that 27% of Union Government jobs be reserved for OBCs, with 22% more being shared between SCs and STs.

While clamours for an official caste census had existed since 1947, it was in the 1980s that they began to grow louder. The Commission’s recommendations were implemented in 1990, and the 1991 Census proceeded as planned, without accounting for OBC data. In the coming years, successive Governments tried to avoid the issue, but finally in 2011, faced with a chorus of criticism in Parliament, the then UPA Government gave in.

That was the year the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was conducted. The ₹4,894cr ($661m) exercise was held independently from the official Census, but it involved door-to-door enumeration of data related to caste and other socioeconomic indicators. Now, information regarding the latter was released in 2015; the caste data, however, was withheld. The reason? “Certain errors” in data collection but also, significantly, the political implications (more on that later).


There and Back Again

In 2018, it seemed as if a caste census would finally materialise. In August that year, the NDA Government, following a meeting to review preparations for Census 2021, released a statement saying, “It is also envisaged to collect data on OBC for the first time.”

But last month, the Government told the Lok Sabha that it had decided "not to enumerate caste-wise population other than SCs and STs in Census”.

This despite growing calls from within the BJP and its allies in support of such a census. This list includes Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale, BJP National Secretary Pankaja Munde, the National Commission for Backward Classes, and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Welfare of the OBCs.

To say nothing of Opposition parties - in particular, the regional ones in North India. The governments of Rajasthan, Odisha, Maharashtra and Bihar have also passed resolutions requesting the Union Government to finally conduct a caste census.


Pros and Cons

Let’s talk about the main arguments from both sides. To proponents of a caste census, the main contention is that it is nonsensical to devise welfare schemes and affirmative action programmes targeting a particular social group without officially knowing the demography or population of that group. Furthermore, the last time such an undertaking was conducted was in 1931 - another caste census is long due.

For opponents - mainly successive Union Governments - the contention is that OBCs are a “dynamic” group. The exercise of tallying their numbers would be rife with operational difficulties and, as the current Government put it, would “adversely affect the integrity of Census exercise”.

There are also idealistic laments - both well-intentioned and otherwise - about such a census somehow reinforcing notions of caste and making people casteist. These concerns are largely misplaced: like it or not, but besides a few aloof pockets in South Delhi and South Bombay, caste remains the backbone of the Indian experience. And as a reality faced and endured by the vast majority of Indians, caste already informs decisions at the policy level. 


Why Not Just Conduct the Caste Census Then?

Dig deeper into the above arguments from both sides, and the murky underworld of electoral politics comes to light.

What explains the u-turn by the BJP after 2018? Possibly the grievances it listed regarding logistical impairments. Or perhaps the fact that 2019 was conveniently an election year?

What explains the Government’s reluctance to release the SECC caste data in 2015? Maybe there were actual errors that needed addressing. Or maybe the Legislative Assembly election in Bihar that year?

And what explains the loud calls for a caste census this year? Perhaps the genuine concerns about the lack of updated statistics. Or perhaps the fact that the UP Assembly election is mere months away…

Explained: The History, Politics and Economics of the Caste Census in IndiaBut hold on. If the BJP was reluctant to release data in 2015, why suddenly change its mind in 2018? That might be explained by the shifting nature of the demographics of the party’s vote share (read this for details).

Okay… But the numbers suggest the BJP is polling well with OBCs, and a caste census has been a long-standing demand among OBCs. Then wouldn’t it make electoral sense for the BJP to give in to their demand to reap gains in UP next year?

Not quite. For better or for worse, caste is one of the central drivers of Indian politics. Since independence, different parties have nurtured their own vote banks for their own benefits. There’s a simple reason why calls for a caste census are loudest in UP and Bihar. The OBC vote share in these states can make or break a government. Regional parties like SP, BSP and JD(U) were practically born and raised on the back of post-Mandal OBC politics.

Consider the hypothetical that the BJP gives in and agrees to a caste census. This data is likely to fundamentally change the way the reservation system works. Given the high probability that the official OBC tally could be well above 50%, demands for a higher allocation in reserved Government jobs (beyond 27%) would gain traction.

This is currently impossible to do. Why? The 1992 Indra Sawhney case, where the Supreme Court capped the total share of reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs at 50%. To accede to demands for more OBC representation would mean breaching this barrier - which the apex court has repeatedly frowned upon. The alternative would be a new law or an amendment to allow for reservations beyond 50%, which might frustrate the BJP’s core voter base of upper-caste Indians. Talk of a double-whammy.


The Importance of Being Earnest (About Data)

Let’s move on from politics now. The released portion of the 2011 SECC has had critical implications. It has been the basis of targeted disbursement of welfare initiatives since. The Government said it would use the economic data to “implement our programmes knowing who needs to be brought forward today".

That’s no surprise. Data is critical for policies to be framed accordingly. In the case of OBCs, given the absence of official estimates, analysts and policymakers have had to rely on alternate sources. Such as the Mandal Commission. Or various Government surveys such as the ones conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) or the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS). However, these are merely surveys, unlike the Census, which is an official enumeration of every citizen in the country. As such, the latter is far more accurate and reliable.

The probability of a caste census anytime soon seems very dim. Until such a project is actively implemented, lawmakers would have to rely on data based on 1931 stats or unofficial estimates. Meanwhile, the present Government may undertake another SECC soon. But expect the caste column to be missing.


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