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Insights into Editorial: A new framework around caste and the census




Introduction: Importance of Census:

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.

In this regard, the Census of India, one of the largest exercises of its kind, enumerates and collects demographic and socio-economic information on the Indian population.

However, no data exists in a vacuum. It has its own history, context and purpose.


About the Census and SECC:

  1. A population Census is the process of collecting, compiling, analysing and disseminating demographic, social, cultural and economic data relating to all persons in the country, at a particular time in ten years interval.
  2. India is recognised for its ‘Unity in diversity’ and the Census gives the citizens a chance to study this diversity and associated facets of their nation through its society, demography, economics, anthropology, sociology, statistics, etc.
  3. The synchronous decennial Census going back to the colonial exercise of 1881 has evolved over time and has been used by the government, policy makers, academics, and others to capture the Indian population, its access to resources, and to map social change.
  4. However, as early as the 1940s, 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”.
  5. This point has also surfaced in later critiques offered by scholars who consider the 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.
  6. As historian and anthropologist Bernard Cohn had demonstrated, the Census may in fact produce an imagination of society, which suggests the epistemological complexities involved.

SECC was conducted for the first time since 1931. SECC is meant to canvass every Indian family, both in rural and urban India, and ask about their:

Economic status, so as to allow Central and State authorities to come up with a range of indicators of deprivation, permutations, and combinations of which could be used by each authority to define a poor or deprived person.

It is also meant to ask every person their specific caste name to allow the government to re-evaluate which caste groups were economically worst off and which were better off.

While the usefulness of the Census cannot be disregarded, for instance with regard to the delimitation exercise, there is a lack of depth where some issues are concerned.

The SECC, which collected the first figures on caste in Census operations since 1931, is the largest exercise of the enumeration of caste. It has the potential to allow for a mapping of inequalities at a broader level.


The main concerns in Census and SECC: potential for misuse of data:

  1. 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”.
  2. The Census thus provides a portrait of the Indian population, while the SECC is a tool to identify beneficiaries of state support.
  3. This difference is significant since it influences not only the methods of collection but also the use and potential for misuse of data.
  4. It would be disingenuous to ignore the emotive element of caste and the political and social repercussions of a caste census.
  5. There have been concerns that counting caste may help solidify or harden identities, or that caste may be context-specific, and thus difficult to measure. These discussions along with various counterarguments are not new.


Issues that Census face: Time lag and planning:

  1. Apart from themes specific to enumerating caste, there are other issues that the Census and the SECC in particular face.
  2. The first relates to the time lag between each Census, and the second to the delay in the release of data.
  3. The first of these is inherent in the way the Census exercises are planned.
  4. The second, however, also has important repercussions to understanding social change since data may remain un-released or released only in parts.
  5. Nearly a decade after the SECC for instance, a sizeable amount of data remains unreleased.
  6. 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, since the Census and the SECC are projects of governance as well as of academic interest.
  7. 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.
  8. Concerns about methodology, relevance, rigour, dissemination, transparency and privacy need to be taken seriously if this exercise is to do what it was set up to do.


Is SECC a better tool to estimate poverty than the BPL method?

Presently poverty in India is determined using the BPL method which is based on the income required to purchase food items (determined using calorie norms) and non-food items (clothing, education etc).

  • SECC is more targeted and precise than the BPL method. While the BPL method identifies the number of poor people, SECC identifies who actually are poor.
  • This will help in improving the efficiency of the government schemes and programmes, leads to better identification and targeting of beneficiaries and avoid duplication and fraud.
  • BPL method uses income as the sole criteria to define poverty but income alone can miss a lot. Poverty is multidimensional and SECC takes this aspect into account while determining poverty.
  • A multidimensional approach is very necessary for the success of poverty alleviation programmes.
    • For example, an area in which most people are deprived of education is going to require a different poverty reduction strategy when compared to an area where most people are deprived of housing facilities.
  • The deprivations faced by the poor in various fields such as education, health, sanitation etc are not accounted in BPL method but are accounted in SECC. So SECC will help in not only poverty eradication but also eradication of various deprivations.
  • The gender-related issues of poverty are taken into consideration in the SECC which was missing in the BPL method.


A road map:

  1. What is needed then is a discussion on the caste data that already exists, how it has been used and understood by the government and its various departments to grant or withdraw benefits, and also its utility for the important academic exercise of mapping social inequalities and social change.
  2. Linking and syncing aggregated Census data to other large datasets such as the National Sample Surveys or the National Family Health Surveys that cover issues that the Census exercises do not, such as maternal health, would be significant for a more comprehensive analysis, enabling the utilisation of the large body of data that already exists.
  3. This linking of the Census with the National Sample Survey data has been suggested in the past by scholars such as Mamta Murthi and colleagues.
  4. Statisticians such as Atanu Biswas point out that Census operations across the world are going through significant changes, employing methods that are precise, faster and cost effective, involving coordination between different data sources.
  5. Care must however be taken to ensure that digital alternatives and linking of data sources involving Census operations are inclusive and non-discriminatory, especially given the sensitive nature of the data being collected.

A multidimensional approach that incorporates a range of indicators to capture the complexity of poverty is the need of the hour and the SECC seems to be a good tool in the hands of the government in this regard.



Census in India is the largest single source of a variety of statistical information on different characteristics of the people of India. It is a sacred democratic exercise.

The government should take necessary steps to avoid the misusing of SECC and also to strengthen the SECC in order to develop it into a powerful tool to fight the curse of poverty that has ravaged many Indians for centuries.

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, since the Census and the SECC are projects of governance as well as of academic interest.

To follow an integrated approach should be the aim of all involved stakeholders in order to conduct this exercise in a hassle-free manner.