Bihar survey exposes disparities among OBCs
The Bihar socio-economic data will sharpen the existing contestation for political power and material resources within the OBC and EBC communities.
The economic truths revealed by the Bihar caste survey data are more telling than whatever political significance the findings may have. The survey has presented a multi-dimensional cross-section of the state — one that is both revealing and shocking. The socio-economic data in the survey suggests that Bihar now needs a larger dose of development, not more of identity-centric politics, which has shaped the state’s governance priorities in the last three decades or so.
The socio-economic data tabled in the Bihar state assembly on Tuesday indicates that 34% of the households in the state earn less than ₹6,000 a month. The survey also revealed that over five million people have migrated from the state for livelihood or education. The report elaborated that a total of 27.6 million families in the state, around 9.4 million, constituting 34%, are poor.
Poverty as an economic phenomenon cuts across castes in Bihar: It is prevalent among the scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs), and extremely backward castes (EBCs), even the upper castes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that “garib” (poor) is the largest “jati” (caste); in Bihar; it is certainly the largest social class. Ironically, the counting of the poor in Bihar has taken place at a time when the Congress, Communist parties and the Socialists have ceased to give primacy to class in their politics and embraced caste instead, particularly the empowerment of the other backward classes (OBCs) through representation as per their share in population!
The findings of the survey reveal three things: One, reservation, considered the magic potion for upward mobility of OBCs and marginal castes, has provided only vertical empowerment. The state needs to plan multi-pronged socio-economic strategies to distribute resources and opportunities horizontally so that they reach all needy and eligible groups, particularly the numerically small groups among OBCs and EBCs. No doubt, EBCs, SCs and STs are seeking to assert their group identity, but they need to acquire some economic capabilities so that they can aspire to acquire social and political capital.
The first step towards emancipation is to rise above poverty. The basic challenge for the political class and governance in Bihar is to lift these marginal social groups out of poverty. For the marginalised sections among the STs, SCs and EBCs, poverty is a stumbling block that prevents them from accessing the benefits of various affirmative actions including reservation.
Second, the data points to the need for the Bihar government to give special focus on empowering EBC and Dalit communities through capacity-building schemes. Uttar Pradesh recently started such targeted distribution of social benefits to the non-dominant Dalit castes and most backward social communities. The Nitish Kumar government had, in the past, carved out the Mahadalit category for better distribution of state resources among SCs. Similar initiatives will have to be undertaken for EBC communities. The Nitish Kumar government has already started to respond to this situation by announcing financial support to facilitate self-employment among very poor families. The provision of reservation needs to be redistributed among the EBC communities by creating quotas within the overall quota and through a continuous process of removing the creamy layers from accessing the benefits of affirmative action. The government must also initiate steps to expand access to education for SCs, STs and EBCs. Without this, it will be impossible for marginalised groups to avail of the benefits of reservation in employment.
Another interesting detail in the survey is that poverty is rampant even among the upper castes in the state, such as Bhumihars, who are considered landed gentry and are historically advanced in terms of social capital. Politicians, bureaucrats and administrators need to be aware of this detail while preparing developmental policies.
Politically, the socio-economic data is likely to enable a shift in the way OBCs are mobilised. It will sharpen the existing contestation for political power and material resources within the OBC and EBC communities. A sense of comparative deprivation may form the socio-psychological basis for backing this politics.
In a recent public lecture in Bihar, Union home minister Amit Shah signalled the arrival of this new politics. He harped on the deep sense of deprivation among EBC communities by talking about how a few dominant OBC groups have monopolised reservation and political office. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has already started to mobilise the numerically small EBC-MBC communities against dominant castes of OBCs. The data in the Bihar caste survey is likely to provide statistical backing for the BJP’s outreach to EBC communities by pitting them against politically dominant OBCs.
I believe the socio-economic narrative emerging from the Bihar caste census report will not just influence the governance of Bihar, but is likely to shape the political dynamic in other parts of India in the coming days. Political parties are likely to use it as an instrument for mobilisation in the coming general elections.
Badri Narayan is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. The views expressed are personal