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Insights into Editorial: Castes count: On T.N. caste-wise survey

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Context:

The Tamil Nadu government announced that a Commission would be set up to conduct a survey for collecting caste-wise data in Tamil Nadu.

The proposed Commission would examine the methodologies being adopted for collecting caste-wise data, and based on that, it would conduct a survey to collect such data and submit a report to the government.

The idea of a caste census is back in the realm of public debate, following the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to establish a commission to collect caste-wise data.

It is in response to the restive pre-election agitation organised by the Pattali Makkal Katchi demanding 20% exclusive reservation in education and government jobs for the Vanniyar community, its main electoral base.

Data on caste was last collected in 1931 Census:

The last time data on caste was collected as part of the decennial Census was in 1931.

Although a socio-economic caste census (SECC) was conducted between 2011 and 2013 in deference to the demand of the powerful OBC lobby, it was part of the rural development ministry’s survey of socio-economic status of households.

The decision marks a victory for OBCs, who stridently campaigned for bringing caste back in the Census exercise.

They maintain that they constitute more than 50% of the population and it was time this “reality” was acknowledged through the Census.

There has, in fact, been much heartburn among the backward classes that the government has given a virtual go-by to the OBC enumeration done through the SECC.

The OBC outfits have been complaining that the government did not form the committee to process the data that has been in its possession for the last three years.

Sources, however, said the SECC, which was purely a response-based exercise with respondents being asked to mention their castes, threw up a mountain of data which was full of anomalies.

While a reliable and accurate headcount of OBCs marks a victory for the “backwards” who have cornered the lion’s share of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions, what might take away their happiness is that this will happen in tandem with a simultaneous exercise to sub-categorise OBCs so as to identify the most backward classes among them that lag far behind the “creamy” layer in terms of ability and achievement.

Expert Group on SECC, 2011:

  1. The Ministry of Rural Development commenced the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011, in June 2011 through a comprehensive door to door enumeration across the country.
  2. However, because of the lack of reliability of the data collected, or its political and electoral sensitivity, the caste portion of the SECC has not been disclosed so far.
  3. The State government could possibly seek access to this data pertaining to Tamil Nadu as part of its exercise.
  4. In 2017, government constituted an Expert Group under the Chairmanship of former Finance Secretary Shri Sumit Bose for:
    1. Studying the objective criteria for allocation of resources to States and
    2. Identification and prioritization of beneficiaries under various programme using Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) data.
  5. Expert Group has observed that regular updation and verification of SECC data is essential for improved targeted delivery of essential services.

Need for collecting and compiling caste-wise data:

  1. It is equally true that there is a social and legal necessity for compiling caste-wise data.
  2. The Supreme Court has been asking States to produce quantifiable data to justify their levels of reservation, and it would help Tamil Nadu to retain its 69% total reservation.
  3. At the same time, some castes that have either electoral or numerical importance across India have been restive about the manner in which affirmative action programmes based on classes and communities have been implemented so far.
  4. Be it the Gujjars, or Jats or the Patidars, or the Vanniyars, some sections have been linking their prospects of advancement to exclusive reservation.
  5. It will present the correct picture of socio-economic status of various castes in any particular state.
  6. Such data will help the state government to ensure how much reservation is actually necessary for any given caste.
  7. Comprehensive caste-based data will help to figure out the economic status of various castes in different states.
  8. State can plan accordingly their welfare schemes for the most backward castes based on their need and socio-economic conditions.
  9. In Tamil Nadu, sections of the Vanniyars, whose violent 1987-88 agitation resulted in the creation of a ‘most backward classes’ category entitled to 20% reservation, are apparently dissatisfied about being clubbed with over a hundred other castes.
  10. It is a sobering reflection on how reservation operates that some castes feel crowded out in the competition and aspire for the safety of exclusive reservation.
  11. The proposed commission may not conduct an elaborate enumeration on the lines of the Centre’s decennial census.
  12. Its mandate is to examine the methodology for collecting caste-wise particulars, conduct a survey based on that and submit a report.
  13. It will be quite a challenge to arrive at a sound assessment of the social and educational backwardness of each caste.

What was the Centre’s initiative in this regard?

  1. The Census of India has not collected caste-wise data since 1931, with the exception of details about SCs and STs.
  2. The Centre conducted a ‘socio-economic caste census (SECC)’ in 2011.
  3. It was an attempt to link the collection of caste data along with socio-economic data.
  4. This was done so that there could be a comprehensive assessment of levels of deprivation and backwardness in society.
  5. However, presumably because of the lack of reliability of the data collected, or its political and electoral sensitivity, the caste portion of the SECC has not been disclosed so far.
  6. The State government could possibly seek access to this data pertaining to Tamil Nadu as part of its exercise.
  7. However, it should not treat this as a politically expedient move to quell a possible electoral setback due to the agitation of one party or community.

Conclusion:

Collecting caste-wise data should seek to rationalise and deepen its social justice policy with a true assessment of the backwardness of various castes.

After all, progress towards a casteless and equal society ought to remain the state’s ultimate goal.

Thus, a casteless and equal society should be government’s ultimate goal along with knowing the true socio-economic status of each caste in India.