Decoding the purpose and politics of caste census

Updated on Aug 24, 2021 05:47 AM IST

Such suggestions, while they appear logical , may not help achieve the objective of a caste census: enhance our understanding of India’s socio-economic inequalities.

Demands for a caste census are deeply linked with the policy of reservations in government jobs and educational institutions.(Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times)
Demands for a caste census are deeply linked with the policy of reservations in government jobs and educational institutions.(Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

An all-party delegation from Bihar; led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 23 to demand a caste census in the country. While speaking to the press after the meeting, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav, leader of opposition in the Bihar assembly, suggested that the caste census could be a part of the normal decadal census, which anyway counts religious groups and Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) separately.

Such suggestions, while they appear logical , may not help achieve the objective of a caste census: enhance our understanding of India’s socio-economic inequalities. Here are five charts which explain why.

India has not conducted a caste census after 1931, but this does not mean there are no reasonable estimates

The British used to enumerate caste in their decadal censuses between 1881 and 1931. This practice was discontinued thereafter and independent India did not restore it as part of the regular census. What the census does count, however, is the number of people belonging to SC-ST groups. This share was 21.54% in the 1971 census and gradually increased to 25.26% in the 2011 census. The trend is not surprising, as the SC-ST population continues to be the most economically backward in the country, and fertility rates are higher when income levels are lower.

The fact that the census does not count social groups other than SC-ST does not mean that there are no reasonable estimates of the broad social break-up of India’s population. Various government surveys such as the ones conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) collect data on broad share of SCs, STs and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the population. The summary findings from the latest NFHS and NSSO rounds are given below.

Of course, shares by caste such as those collected by NFHS and NSSO are survey based estimates unlike the census. The latter is actually an enumeration of every person in the country. It is this fact which allows the former to be questioned politically.

What is often forgotten in this debate is the fact that today’s NFHS-NSSO estimates of caste shares are not very different from what the Mandal Commission Report assumed them to be, based on an extrapolation from the 1931 census numbers.

Reconciling caste-census demands with reservations

Demands for a caste census are deeply linked with the policy of reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. This is not a benign statistical enumeration

There are two factors which matter: a continuing quest for including more social groups into the list of those eligible for reservations and demands for relaxing the Supreme Court mandated 50% quota on reservations in India. The former is bound to generate more traction for the latter, as inclusion of more communities into the reserved category will shrink the probability of the groups which were there earlier gaining from reservations. The Mandal Commission’s recommendation of providing 27% reservations for OBCs was a direct result of the 50% cap on reservations.

The report says this unequivocally.

“The population of OBCs, both Hindu and non-Hindu, is around 52% of the total population of India. Accordingly 52% of all posts under the Central government should be reserved for them. But this provision may go against the law laid down in a number of Supreme Court judgments wherein it has been held that the total quantum of reservation under Articles 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution should be below 50%. In view of this, the proposed reservation for OBCs would have to be pegged at a figure which when added to 22.5% for SCs and STs, remains below 50%. In view of this legal constraint, the Commission is obliged to recommend a reservation of 27% only, even though their (OBC) population is almost twice this figure.”

It is in this context that the recent demand for doing away with the 50% cap on reservations -- the groups demanding this are the most consistent in demanding a caste census too -- needs to be seen.

But reservations are for Other Backward Classes not Other Backward Castes

OBCs, especially in the realm of politics, are always seen as a social group. This does not hold when it comes to constitutional provisions for reservations. Constitutionally speaking, OBC reservations are not at par with reservations for SC-ST groups in India. The biggest proof of this is the fact that unlike in the case of the SC-ST population, OBCs belonging to the creamy layer – a threshold which looks at various things, but primarily income limits – cannot avail of reservations. This underlines the importance of class rather than a simple caste aspect when it comes to OBC reservations.

Reservations and OBC politics

The biggest information black hole around implementation of OBC reservations is not the overall benefits to OBCs as a result of reservations. Reservations have clearly helped.

“Representation of SCs and STs is more than the prescribed percentage of reservation, (15% and 7.5%, respectively). The representation of OBCs in the Central Government services is 21.57%, which is less, as compared to the prescribed percentage of reservation for them. However, reservation of Other Backward Classes (OBC) has shown an increasing trend since it started in September, 1993. As per available information, representation of OBCs, as on 1.1.2012, was 16.55%, which has increased to 21.57%, as on 01.01.2016”, Union Minister of State Dr Jitendra Singh in written reply to a question in Lok Sabha on July 17, 2019.

The gap in knowledge is the extent to which these benefits have helped sub-castes within the larger group currently classified as OBCs. It is this fact which led to the Narendra Modi government setting-up the Justice Rohini Commission on sub-categorization of OBCs in 2017.

There are 2,633 Other Backward Castes in the Central List and earlier this year the commission proposed to divide them into four subcategories numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 and split the 27% into 2, 6, 9 and 10%, respectively. If accepted, the recommendations are likely to have a major impact on politics, especially in north India where the rise of powerful OBC groups such as Yadavs defined the 1990s.

The Commission’s term was extended by another six months on July 14. As is obvious, the recommendations of the Justice Rohini Commission will unleash a major political churn, as dominant OBCs, who the commission believes have benefitted disproportionately from the current policy, might end up losing their advantage within the broad OBC group.

Data from CSDS-Lokniti suggest that the BJP stands to gain by tilting the OBC reservation gains away from dominant OBC groups such as the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The BJP’s support among lower and upper OBCs was 22% in 2009. By 2019, the party enjoyed support of 47% lower OBCs. This number had increased to 41% for upper OBCs. Among Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP actually lost support between 2014 and 2019: from 14% to 9% in Bihar and 26% to 24% in Uttar Pradesh.

Politics apart, clubbing caste census with normal census can’t do justice to the cause of equity within OBCs

The fact that OBC reservations must also take into account class and not just caste, and the current government has already set the ball rolling for restructuring the existing 27% OBC reservations, means that a simple enumeration of OBCs along with SC-ST groups in the census will not help the cause of equality among OBCs.

Any such exercise must also collect detailed information on economic status of various sub-castes, which is not possible in the census. This is something the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 promised to do. But its findings were never released. However, we have more than enough evidence to question claims that the communities which are classified as OBCs have the same economic status.

For example, a 2018 World Bank paper by Shareen Joshi and others found that intra-caste divisions can play a bigger role in creation of inequality than inter-caste factors. “While average figures for the broad caste groups confirm to the received wisdom, with upper castes being most well off and STs being the worst off, intra-caste or jati based trends do not always conform to this broad hierarchy”, a HT story on August 6, 2018 noted based on the paper’s findings.

To be sure, the World Bank paper’s findings might have been affected by its mandate to provide baseline estimates of poverty in Bihar, which might have led to a disproportionate focus on poorer households.

However, evidence from larger surveys such as the NFHS also underlines the prevalence of differentiation in economic status of OBCs across India’s states. For example, an HT story dated April 4, 2019 calculated relative share of OBCs in the top 20% households by wealth and found significant divergences across states, suggesting that the economic status of OBCs is not uniform across the country.

These numbers clearly show that the politically convenient demand for clubbing a caste census with the normal census, and using it to justify either a reorganization or expansion of OBC reservations, might help political ends, but will not take India towards a more egalitarian and well-informed affirmative action policy framework.

And if at all a comprehensive caste census with economic attributes is conducted, and the findings seek to disenfranchise or reduce the existing benefits available to certain groups, the country could have a huge social-political disruption to deal with.

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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