2011 caste census data unusable: Centre to Supreme Court
The caste census conducted in 2011 is “unusable” for any official purpose on account of grave “inaccuracies” in its data, the Union government has told the Supreme Court, while adding it is also against collecting any information on castes or backward classes, other than Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), during the upcoming population census in 2022.
Submitting its affidavit in the court, the Centre opposed the Maharashtra government’s plea to make the 2011 caste census public, underlining that the data is “fraught with mistakes and inaccuracies”, and has been hence kept under wraps.
“Either due to the mistakes by the enumerators, inherent flaws in the manner of conducting census, and several such other factors, there is no reliable dependable caste-based census data available which can be the basis of any constitutional or statutory exercise like reservations in admissions, promotions or local body elections,” stated the affidavit filed before a bench headed by justice AM Khanwilkar.
Refusing to collect data on backward class of citizens (BCCs) during the upcoming census, the government maintained that this exercise is administratively complex, and against the policy decision of the government.
It added that unlike the constitutional mandate for collection of census data on SCs and STs, there is no obligation to provide the census figures of OBCs/BCCs. The census data on SCs and STs are used for delimitation of electoral constituencies as well as for reservation of seats, as mandated under the Constitution.
The case came up before the bench, which also included justices Dinesh Maheshwari and CT Ravikumar, on Thursday. It was adjourned by four weeks as the state government sought time to reply to the Centre’s submissions.
The 2011 caste census, collected during the United Progressive Alliance government, was the first caste-based census since the 1931 census of India. The first census was conducted in 1881, and since then, has been held every 10 years. While the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was last conducted in 2011, the 2021 census was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and it is now expected to take place in February 2022.
On August 23, an 11-member delegation led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand caste-wise enumeration of OBCs in the 2021 census. Most advocates say that not knowing the numbers of the various OBC communities prevents the creation of targeted interventions for their welfare.
However, in July, Nityanand Rai, the minister of state for home affairs, stated in a written reply to a question in Lok Sabha that the Union government has decided as a matter of policy not to enumerate caste-wise populations other than SCs and STs in the census.
Meanwhile, the affidavit, filed through the ministry of social justice and empowerment in the top court, pointed out that the socio-economic data in the 2011 census was used by the government to identify the poor households and in implementation of the anti-poverty programmes, but the caste data was kept confidentially with the office of the registrar general of India “primarily for the technical flaws that makes it unusable”.
It added that the Union Cabinet also set up a committee in July 2015 under the chairmanship of then NITI Ayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya but the committee never took off, “as a result no action has been taken on the data in the past five years”.
The Centre was responding to a petition by the Maharashtra government, which has asked for the release of the 2011 caste census data for implementing 27% reservation for other backward classes (OBCs) announced under the Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act.
On March 4, the Supreme Court held that the Maharashtra government cannot implement the 27% OBC quota to the elections of these local bodies since the state did not have any empirical data. The Court further held that the cumulative reservation in these local bodies (for SC/ST/OBC) should not exceed 50% cap as mandated by the Supreme Court in its landmark judgment of Indra Sawhney in 1992.
Citing this judgment, the Maharashtra government filed a fresh petition in the top court, arguing that without the Central census data, the proportional representation of OBCs, rural backward BCCs cannot be done in the elections.
The state has also demanded that the court should direct the Centre to collect data on BCCs while conducting the national population census in 2022. The Centre has, however, opposed both the prayers of the state government.
About collecting data on BCCs, its affidavit said: “Enumeration of OBCs/BCCs has been always adjudged to be administratively extremely complex difficult and cumbersome. It has suffered and will suffer both on account of completeness and accuracy of the data, as also evident from the infirmities of the 2011 census, making it unused unusable for any official purpose and cannot be mentioned as source of information for population data in any official document.”
The Union government added that exclusion of information regarding any other caste from the purview of census is a conscious policy decision taken by it. “In such a situation, any direction from this court to the census department to include the enumeration of social-economic data to the extent relating to BCC of rural India in the upcoming census would tantamount to interfering with the policy decision,” underlined the affidavit. It said that based on the above policy decision, no information was collected about the castes except those of SCs and STs since the 1951 census in the independent India.
The affidavit further highlighted that several high courts as well as the Supreme Court have earlier ruled against giving any direction to the Union government to carry out a caste census. It cited a 2014 Supreme Court judgment that had set aside the Madras High Court order directing the Centre to conduct caste-wise census in the country, terming it “as a colossal transgression of power of judicial review”.
The affidavit further pointed out that the 2011 data shows more than 4.6 million caste names which have not been classified or categorised into the appropriate category of classes or castes till date. Collection of data in respect of backward classes in the upcoming census, said the Centre, will pose serious challenges to the enumerators who cannot verify the authenticity of information and more particularly, in regard to income. During the 2011 exercise, the government claimed there were thousands of instances when the enumerators spelt the same caste differently, leading to recording each one as a separate caste.
In the case of Maharashtra, the Union government pointed out that the analysis of the 2011 caste census showed that more than 428,000 castes were recorded while the state identifies only 494 castes, including SCs and STs.
Similarly, while the total number of castes during the first census in India in 1931 was 4,147, the 2011 data recorded more than 4.6 million different castes. “Even assuming that some castes may bifurcate into subcastes, the total number cannot be exponentially high to this extent... for the aforesaid reasons the details available in the record of the census pertaining to caste is not reliable either for the purpose of any reservation, whether in admission, employment or election to local authorities,” said the affidavit.
It added that the preliminary exercise for the 2021-22 census is also over following a notification on January 7, 2020 which relates to instructions meant for census officers to ask all such questions from all persons for collecting information. Inclusion of any additional questions in the schedule at this stage is not feasible, said the government.