2021: Focus on census, not caste

Updated on Sep 24, 2021 07:50 PM IST

Given India’s multiple challenges at the moment, the Centre is right about moving ahead with the 2021 census, without caste enumeration

This newspaper, while recognising the historic discrimination faced by marginalised communities on the axis of caste, believes that a caste census will only reinforce the politics of identity (Sambit Saha/HT Archive) PREMIUM
This newspaper, while recognising the historic discrimination faced by marginalised communities on the axis of caste, believes that a caste census will only reinforce the politics of identity (Sambit Saha/HT Archive)
ByHT Editorial

In an affidavit to the Supreme Court, the Centre has outlined the flaws in the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC); pointed to the political, administrative and sociological challenges in enumerating caste-specific demographic assessments (Dalits and tribals are already counted); and taken a position that the 2021 census should happen as planned. This was in response to a plea by the Maharashtra government, which first decided to create separate reservations for Marathas. This breached the 50% cap set by the SC, and was overruled by the apex court. Maharashtra wanted the Centre to collect information on backward castes in the 2021 census.

This newspaper, while recognising the historic discrimination faced by marginalised communities on the axis of caste, believes that a caste census will only reinforce the politics of identity. There have to be better ways to secure justice, ensure equitable representation, and provide opportunities than forcing citizens to remain wedded to their caste identities — which a caste census will do. Constantly increasing reservation limits makes the architecture of affirmative action meaningless. The timing adds to the political and logistical challenge. The Centre’s politics — of pushing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and initially linking it to a National Register of Citizens before backtracking from it — led to doubts about the census among sections of the population in 2020. The pandemic then made it difficult to embark on the exercise. If caste is now included as a metric, it will only further delay the 2021 census. As the Centre acknowledged, the 2011 SECC was flawed — and this is because capturing complex and fluid caste categories in India is not easy. Surnames are deceptive, one caste may be considered backward in a state, but not elsewhere, and caste count will get mired in competitive political mobilisation.

There is a sound case to be built on capturing socio-economic indicators based on caste. Despite its flaws, SECC allowed the State to be able to tailor its welfare programmes efficiently. The political climate is perhaps making a caste census inevitable. But given India’s multiple challenges at the moment, questions of credibility of data across spheres, and the fact that a mere headcount of Other Backward Classes will not answer questions about their socioeconomic status, it is best to let the 2021 census proceed, as the political class and civil society debate the desirability and objective of a caste-specific count and its implications more carefully.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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