The Union Cabinet on Thursday reversed a 60-year-old policy that refused to count castes to discourage community distinction based on the caste system, opting for an independent caste count to preserve the integrity of decadal headcount.
The first caste census since Independence will be conducted over a four-month period next June but government officials concede it could take anthropologists years to make sense of the data.
The last attempt to classify all caste names was made by the Anthropological Survey of India under its project, "People of India".
It listed more than 65,000 names in the 1992 publication but found it too difficult to classify so many returns. It finally ended up identifying only 7,331 communities.
"After considering various options based on the response of political parties, the Cabinet decided that a separate house-to-house enumeration of caste will be done from June to September 2011," Home Minister P Chidambaram announced after the Cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister.
The exercise will require 1.2 billion people to respond to the question: "What is your caste?" But people will be free to report, "No caste".
Chidambaram said the Census Commissioner will conduct the field operations of the caste enumeration and hand over details of the castes/tribes returned in the enumeration to an Expert Group to be set up to classify the returns.
There was no clarity which ministry would anchor the expert group and take upon itself the responsibility of classifying the data.
The home ministry has already made it clear that it was beyond its capacity to process the data and pointed to the social justice and empowerment ministry headed by Mukul Wasnik.
At Thursday's meeting - the third since May to discuss the exercise - Wasnik wasn't too keen as the census - caste or otherwise - came under the home ministry's charter.
Sources said Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee - who headed the Group of Ministers on the subject made it clear during the 15-minute discussion that the Prime Minister, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and he had committed the government to the Census, silencing any further critical voices.