Can caste census help social development?

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Can caste census help social development?

Tuesday, 07 November 2023 | Iyce Malhotra/ Sandeep Chachra

Can caste census help social development?

In a transformative country like ours, policy decisions based on caste data can change society for the better

Dr BR Ambedkar's powerful call to annihilate caste not only challenged the entrenched power dynamics of the upper castes but also held profound implications for economic growth and broader social development. Following this legacy, the late Kanshi Ram introduced the slogan Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhari, Uski Utni Hissedari (Proportional share based on population strength). This slogan emphasised the critical importance of social equality achieved through fair and proportional representation. It underscored the need for an inclusive and representative governance structure that mirrors the diverse composition of our society.

After the Patna High Court upheld the Government of Bihar’s decision to conduct the caste survey and the Supreme Court clarified that it had not stayed its publication, on 2 October 2023, the State Government released results of the “Bihar Jaati Adharit Gananna, 2023”. Coincidentally, this was a week before Kanshi Ram's 17th death anniversary.

There has been a strong reluctance to collect or release caste-based data publicly, as seen in the case of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011 and the Government of Karnataka’s socio-economic survey report of 2015. Odisha, too, surveyed caste-based information in May 2023, but its report is not yet officially released. Following the Bihar survey, there has been some interest from states like Maharashtra, Assam and Rajasthan in conducting caste surveys,

The need for socio-economic caste surveys has been established and reinforced time and again by political parties and civil society. A substantial body of data and analysis suggests that affirmative action may require refinement in light of the progress made in recent decades. While certain oppressed castes have advanced in various domains, others have not experienced equal growth. Additionally, segments of the population have been overlooked in the process.

Over the millennia of history of the Indian sub-continent, distinct social groups had unequal access to land. As the caste system evolved, some castes typically did not possess land. These were avarna or ati-shudra groups, whom Jyotirao Phule in the late 19th century referred to as “Dalit”, a term adopted by these communities in the 1970s. The Constitution of India categorized these groups as Scheduled Castes (SC).

Tribal groups outside the caste system also had a tenuous hold on land and access to forests. Under the Constitution, these have been identified as Scheduled Tribes (ST). Peasant cultivators and artisans without substantial land ownership were categorised under the Constitution as socially and educationally backward classes. However, the Government of India uses Other Backward Classes (OBC) as a collective term to cover these groups.

Landholdings, as captured in the Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India, 2019 shows that only 14% of agricultural households from Scheduled Tribes own land and 16% of SC own land. Scheduled Castes (SCs) in India face the second highest level of multidimensional poverty, following the STs. According to the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index of 2021, approximately 33.3% of India's 28.3 crore SC population is living in poverty. Additionally, it is imperative to demystify the varying socio-economic status of the various subgroups falling under the category OBC. Such a census will allow for equitable welfare measures tailor-made to suit the diverse needs of people within OBC.

Analysis by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy on the caste-wise labour force participation rate reveals a concerning trend - the most significant decline in labour force participation rates since 2016-2017 has been among the OBCs and SCs. The employment rates have drastically fallen, particularly affecting the OBCs and SCs. The labour force participation rate of OBCs since 2016 has fallen from 46% to 38% in 2022-23, as opposed to the rates for upper caste, which has seen a relatively marginal decline – from 42% to 37%.

The National Sample Survey (2011-12) revealed that SCs had a significantly higher proportion of casual wage workers among wage labourers, indicating poorer job security and lower earnings. Specifically, 32% of the overall informal labour population in the country were from the SCs, double their population share of 16%. Additionally, SCs were employed for fewer days than people from general caste categories, with one-third of the disparity attributed to differences in human capital endowment and two-thirds to discrimination against SCs in the hiring process.

Moreover, funds intended for the welfare of disadvantaged communities are also diverted elsewhere. According to the 2016 National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) report, several states have misallocated funds intended for the most disadvantaged segments of society. In a more recent instance, the Bihar Government in 2018-19 diverted over Rs 8,800 crore, designated for scholarships for SC/ST students, towards various projects such as roads, embankments, medical colleges, and government buildings.

These dismal indicators underscore the pressing need to enumerate and tailor government interventions for the holistic upliftment of marginalised communities. The effort by the Bihar Government to enumerate these groups and release the data publicly is an essential first step towards bringing about social justice.

While the influence of vote bank politics in shaping political strategies is undeniable, it is equally crucial to recognise the potential of data-driven and evidence-based approaches in formulating effective policies and social welfare programs. Accurate and up-to-date on caste groups and demographic aspects enable policymakers to design targeted and impactful initiatives that address various marginalized communities' specific needs and concerns.

The state should aim for fair resource allocation and equal opportunities while avoiding the reinforcement of caste identities.

Furthermore, the significance of this renewed attention to the caste census extends beyond policy formulation to advancing social justice. It plays a vital role in dispelling divisive political and religious rhetoric that has affected our society. By relying on factual and updated data, misrepresentations and prejudices that hinder social justice can be challenged, such as the notion of a high influx of Muslims into Bihar from Bangladesh. The survey shows a minor increase of less than 1% in the Muslim population since the 2011 census

In this journey towards the annihilation of caste, it is imperative to have an unwavering political will and a comprehensive agenda that places evidence-based affirmative action at its core. A similar exercise is required for the nomadic tribes and de-notified tribes (NTDNT) of India. A census of NTDNT, a long-standing demand and one appointed commission has endorsed, will enable us to move towards a more equitable representation, ensuring that every community has a fair share of the socio-economic and political landscape. Data availability will allow for the tailoring of welfare policies with customised budgets and targeted interventions that specifically address the unique socio-economic needs of each marginalised group.

The renewed focus on the caste census is a pivotal step that advocates for proportionate representation and a shift toward social justice and progress. These phenomena need to go together to foster suitable welfare policies and create robust social dialogue about the intricacies of caste. These policies, rooted in accurate and comprehensive caste-based data, have the potential to bridge the socio-economic gaps that have persisted for generations. By gaining insights into the distinct challenges faced by various caste groups, policymakers can craft nuanced and practical strategies to uplift the marginalised and ensure no one is left behind. Moreover, a well-informed social dialogue on the caste census can help challenge stereotypes, prejudices, and biases associated with caste.

In a transforming India, where education and technology act as levelling forces, caste-based affirmative action, refined through caste numbers, can drive more extensive dialogues on aspiration, ambition, freedom, opportunity, and the necessity for a system where citizens are not unfairly privileged or confined by their identities. If a robust methodology were to be used, this effort would be vital in identifying and addressing fault lines to promote gender justice.

The availability of socio-economic data disaggregated on categories that exist in society should inspire a broader nationwide conversation on the dynamics of social hierarchies, encouraging efforts towards social justice and equality. A country-wide caste census would thus be a good step towards annihilating caste.

(Iyce Malhotra and Sandeep Chachra, work with ActionAid Association. The views expressed are personal)

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