A new framework around caste and the census

  • IASbaba
  • January 23, 2021
  • 0
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  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
  • GS-2: Mechanisms, laws, institutions and Bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of vulnerable sections.

A new framework around caste and the census

Context: The Census of India, one of the largest exercises of its kind, enumerates and collects demographic and socio-economic information on the Indian population.

About Census in India

  • The decennial census provides information on size, distribution and socio-economic, demographic and other characteristics of the country’s population. The first synchronous census in India was held in 1881. Since then, censuses have been undertaken uninterruptedly once every ten years.
  • Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), which collected the first figures on caste since 1931, is the largest exercise of the enumeration of caste. SECC supplies data to differentiate the socio-economic status of households based on housing, educational status, landholding, differently abled, occupation, possession of assets, SC/ST households, incomes etc.

What is the difference between Census and SECC?

  • The Census and the SECC have different purposes. 
  • Since the Census falls under the Census Act of 1948, all data are considered confidential
  • Whereas according to the SECC website, “all the personal information given in the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) is open for use by Government departments to grant and/or restrict benefits to households”. 
  • SECC methodology defines poverty through deprivation, instead of consumption.
  • The Census thus provides a portrait of the Indian population, while the SECC is a tool to identify beneficiaries of state support. 
  • This difference is significant since it influences not only the methods of collection but also the use and potential for misuse of data.

Benefits of Census (Decennial and SECC)

  • Evidence based Policy Making: Enumerating, describing and understanding the population of a society and what people have access to, and what they are excluded from, is important not only for social scientists but also for policy practitioners and the government. 
  • Ensures Equity in Governance: Since Independence, aggregated Census data on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on certain parameters such as education have been collected. This data will help government to remedy inequalities present in the society.
  • Delimitation Exercise: Delimitation Commission sets up boundaries of electoral constituencies based on the data obtained from decennial census
  • Developmental Purposes: Businesses use census data to decide where to build factories, offices and stores, and this creates jobs. Developers use the census to build new homes and revitalize old neighborhoods. 
  • Cooperative Federalism: Central government funds, grants and support to states and local governments consider population totals and breakdowns by sex, age, caste and other factors. 
  • Civic Participation in Governance: Commenting on the 1941 Census, Census Commissioner Yeatts observed that, “Thanks to the acute interest in community figures, practically all communities this time were census-conscious and took pains to see that their houses were in the list and that they themselves were counted.” Census thus ensures that Democracy is participative in nature.

Criticism of Census

  • Unsuited for specialised inquiry: W.W.M. Yeatts, Census Commissioner for India for the 1941 Census, had pointed out that, “the census is a large, immensely powerful, but blunt instrument unsuited for specialised enquiry”
  • Cannot provide comprehensive understanding of Society:  Few scholars consider Census as both a data collection effort and a technique of governance, but not quite useful enough for a detailed and comprehensive understanding of a complex society. 
  • Complexity of Caste Census: This large administrative exercise of capturing caste and its complexities is not only difficult, but also socially untenable. It is argued that counting caste may be context-specific, and thus difficult to measure
  • Political and social repercussions of a Caste census: There have been concerns that counting caste may help solidify or harden identities which hinders development of National identity.
  • Time lag and planning: Nearly a decade after the SECC for instance, a sizeable amount of data remains unreleased. Data delay has important repercussions to understanding social change since data may remain un-released or released only in parts.

Way Ahead

  • Need for better collaboration: While the Census authorities present documents on methodology as part of a policy of transparency, there needs to be a closer and continuous engagement between functionaries of the Census and SECC, along with academics and other stakeholders concerned.
  • Learning from Past Census: Before another SECC is conducted, a stocktaking of the previous exercise, of what has been learnt from it, and what changes are necessary, beyond changing exclusionary criteria for beneficiaries of state support, are crucial to enable the Census to facilitate effective policy work and academic reflection. 

Connecting the dots:

  • Tamil Nadu Commission for Caste-wise Data: Click here
  • NPR and Census

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