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Classifying caste census data could be Panagariya’s toughest job

Making sense of India’s first caste census after Independence is going to be Niti Aayog's vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya’s most gruelling assignment so far. His panel would need 355 days to read the 4.6 million entries thrown up by the caste census.

india Updated: Jul 18, 2015 16:33 IST

Making sense of India’s first caste census after Independence is going to be Niti Aayog's vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya’s most gruelling assignment so far. His panel would need 355 days to read the 4.6 million entries thrown up by the caste census. That is, if this is all Panagariya does for 12 hours every day for the next one year.

However, the panel of experts set up by the Union Cabinet this week under Panagariya’s chairmanship is expected to do a lot more.

The panel has been tasked with sorting out the vast database of castes, sub-castes, surnames and social groups to come out with a headcount of India’s population by caste.

This means, the panel will have to match each of the 4.6 million entries with the correct caste. It is a job that will require the former Columbia University economist to lean heavily on sociologists and anthropologists with good knowledge of India’s caste structures and sub-cultures.

Back in the eighties, the Anthropological Survey of India too had attempted to classify the caste names but had to tone down its ambitious plan. It was unable to classify the 65,000 castes thrown up by its study – not as comprehensive as a census – and decided to limit itself to identifying 7331 communities instead.

That census enumerators who covered 330 million households ended up with a list of 4.6 million entries implies that on an average, only 72 households used the same phrase to identify their caste.

“Clearly, different people understood different things when they were asked about their caste,” a government official associated with the enumeration exercise that started in 2011-12 told HT.

And this, after Registrar General of India (RGI) C Chandramouli flagged problems in the caste data generated by the states.

In all, the RGI's office has so far pointed to defects in the caste data relating to every fourth household; 81 million out of a total of 330 million. A senior government official told HT that 67 million cases had been rectified by the states but 14 million cases were still pending with them.

It was in recognition of the enormity of the challenge facing Panagariya’s panel that the government did not commit itself to a deadline for the panel at this stage.

It is a situation that the RGI – that doubles up as the census commissioner – had predicted in 2010 when the home ministry opposed the caste census.

The home ministry had warmed the Manmohan Singh government to expect “names of hundreds of thousands of castes, sub-castes” to be generated.

“It might be difficult to correctly classify such unspecified returns. The knowledge on sub-castes is highly inadequate and thus, it would be difficult to meaningfully tabulate and classify Other Backward Classes returns,” the home ministry had said in its cabinet note but was over-ruled.

Read:Govt says caste data will be made public at appropriate time