Making sense of India’s first caste census after Independence will likely be Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya’s most gruelling assignment so far, needing 355 12-hour workdays to just read its 4.6 million entries.
And the expert panel set up by the cabinet under Panagariya’s chairmanship this week is expected to do a lot more than just read, sorting the vast database of castes, sub-castes, surnames and social groups to arrive at a headcount of India’s population by 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, explaining why they ended up with 4.6 million caste entries.
That was after registrar general of India (RGI) C Chandramouli flagged problems in the caste data generated by states.
In all, the RGI’s office has so far pointed out defects in caste data related to every fourth household: 81 million of a total 330 million. About 67 million cases were rectified by states but 14 million were still pending, a senior government official told HT.
Panagariya’s 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.
That census enumerators who covered 330 million households ended up with a list of 4.6 million entries implies that on average, only 72 households used the same phrase to identify their caste.
Back in the 1980s, the Anthropological Survey of India had also attempted to classify 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 7,331 communities instead.
Recognising the enormity of the challenge facing Panagariya, the government did not commit itself to a deadline for the panel at this stage.
It is a situation that the RGI, doubling up as the census commissioner, predicted in 2010 when the home ministry opposed the caste census.
The ministry had warned the Manmohan Singh government to expect “names of hundreds of thousands of castes and 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 ministry had said in its cabinet note but was overruled.