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Caste Census

DIVISIVE, QUESTIONABLE DATA

By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR)

New Delhi, May 23 : Last week the nation celebrated 60 years of Parliament. While sitting MPs had reason to cheer and introspect, our founding fathers would have reasons to do a thumbs’ down. For, the country is more divided than ever before, thanks to the Centre going ahead with enumeration of caste as part of the census. Sadly, it is reversal of a 60-year-old policy taken in 1951 in the fresh excitement of Independence to open a new chapter with establishment of a society free of narrow attachments, prejudices, and discriminations.

Caste was then considered a divisive factor fanned by the British Government to keep the people divided.  Evidently, it was taken for granted that ignoring caste in the census – the biggest and most authentic national data on population characteristics – would be not only an effective but also   an indispensable step towards establishing a casteless society.

By re-opening caste census, the Government has knowingly opened the Pandora’s Box, for, the role caste actually plays, the way the caste factor is exploited in politics, administration, and social welfare schemes is not any secret.  The contents inside the Box, which is now disturbed and tampered, will not refrain from stinging.  We can expect a great “tamasha” (scene) in the form of proliferation of issues while none of the problems presently faced in not having caste data will find a solution.

Having got a clearance from the concerned authorities, caste census has already begun as part of the socio-economic survey under the census of 2011. Known as Socio-Economic and Caste-based Census (SECC), it is carried out in rural and urban areas by respective State Governments with Central financing.

The SECC is a sequel to the decision of the Planning Commission and the Rural Development Department to drop State-wise ceiling on poverty figures to determine entitlements for social welfare schemes. The SECC is an attempt to rank households on the basis of certain indicators of deprivation and determine entitlements, particularly food security.

The SECC has been launched with three main objectives, namely, One, to rank households on the basis of socio-economic status and prepare a list of families below poverty line; Two, To provide “authentic” information on caste-wise population in the country; and three, to make available “authentic” information on the socio-economic condition, and educational status of various castes and sections of the population.

Whether this expensive and massive exercise yields reliable data to help identify people below poverty line, rationalize our affirmative action policy,   help listing of backward castes and correct deficiencies in the implementation of the Reservation Policy is anybody’s guess. The data turned out may have multiple uses for several agencies. For the present, the enumerator has to deal with the practical problems in recording caste in every household so that reliable material can be produced.

It is rather difficult to believe that enumerators have clear instructions regarding recording of caste data, which is not a simple fact as commonly assumed.  We have seen that much simpler questions relating to migration and type of houses pose problems to the respondents and the enumerators.  Not many investigators are likely to be aware of the census definition of “migration” to elicit correct reply from the respondents.

It requires no great sociologist or political scientist to predict the outcome of this exercise. Politically conscious and active castes have already sprung into action to make the best use of this opportunity to push their respective individual agenda.

Several castes, particularly those presently recognized as among “Other Backward Classes” (OBC) are vigorously trying to bring together several of their sub-castes and advising them to return the name of the main caste for the purpose of this census. This would show their consolidated strength to highlight their claim to higher job quota and special reservation to take care of their number.

For instance, the leaders of Vanniars in Tamil Nadu, (who have formed the Pattali Makkal Katchi), are advising their caste people known by the name of their sub-castes — Palli, Padayachi, Gounder, Naicker, Mooper, Vandaiyar, Vannikula Kshatriya and so on — to return their caste under the main name of Vanniakula Kshatriya.  The leaders of Nadar association have advised their caste men to ignore their sub-caste and claim their membership in the main Nadar caste. Such consolidation exercises go on among many castes in all States, say among Yadavas. Some of the backward castes in Tamil Nadu are reported to have engaged volunteers to supervise the operation of caste enumeration in some places.

It is well known that among the OBCs in general and within particular castes in this category, there are castes and sub-castes that form what is officially termed as “creamy layer” and are much ahead of others and monopolise the privileges under the Reservation Policy.  They have a vested interest in sticking to the larger main caste and continue to enjoy and also corner the benefits. The larger size would also provide justification for their demand for higher benefits on numerical basis.

On the contrary, Dalits or the Scheduled Castes are not keen on such fusion of sub-castes as some of their leaders feel that it is the recognition as “Dalit” and not the name of their individual caste that gives them entitlement for special treatment. The status of being casteless and “dalit” creates a sense of unity among them, and a consciousness of being a potent political group.  They fear that merger of sub-castes would introduce majority-minority controversies among fellow Dalits and introduce competition within.

Scheduled Tribes want to retain the name of their sub-group as they are individually identified. All these show that neither the respondents nor the enumerators can be clear on the nomenclature. This is the result of the basic truth about caste that it is not something that is verifiable.  The enumerators have to record the responses as given and cannot ask for any proof or documents.

Caste is indeed a claim that cannot be substantiated by any proof and therefore a mere notion. Therefore, there may be many people who do not claim to belong to any caste and there cannot be any compulsion in this regard. Apart from this, the case of children of inter-caste marriages and those of separated parents will confuse both respondents and enumerators whatever the rules say.

Under these conditions, caste census is likely to yield only approximate and manipulated information about the number or socio-economic status of castes. Should the Government spend crores of public money to produce questionable data? —INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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