Let's make this count
A caste census has its drawbacks but it could maximise gains in welfare delivery.india Updated: Sep 10, 2010 23:42 IST
India's official stance on caste has for nearly a century been on the lines of that of the emperor in the fairy tale towards his new clothes. To be charitable, it has given caste head counts a wide berth on the principle that you can't twist data that you don't have. Social mobility, the argument runs, can be achieved through reservation in jobs and in the means to land them alongside targeted welfare spending. This was undertaken without knowing exactly how many are in need of either, ostensibly as a safeguard against caste-based politics. As things turned out, our political parties have a fair idea of the caste count in their constituencies: to have a fighting chance, the village leader must know how many of his neighbours belong to his caste and how many don't. Several parties exist because they could, at the outset, pool this data and process it to their benefit. They thrive because they don't live in denial.
An official caste census takes away some of this arbitrage. Not only does private profiling lead to winnability, it binds to power through the promise of patronage. A government machine that has no headcount can't tell if jobs are going to the boys or state aid to the re-election fund. Such social and economic empowerment, however flawed, works when institutional capacities are small. A nation that is taking tentative steps towards widespread social security, however, needs better accounting standards.
Over the next decade, India hopes to provide its 1.2 billion citizens identification numbers that should eventually serve as a fence around legitimate economic and political activity. The unique identification number project could pay for itself, its managers reckon, in a year by saving the government Rs 20,000 crore in annual social welfare payouts that end up in the wrong hands because of duplication. For a big government like India's, which spends every fourth rupee of the national income, biometric identification is the first step in moving away from functional anarchy. The strong correlation between caste and economic dispossession calls for the more controversial headcount. If flagship welfare schemes are co-built with the new database, as is the idea, productivity gains in welfare delivery can outweigh the political damage of a caste census.