SC’s caste census ruling laudable

The Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the uploading of data collected in the recently-concluded Bihar caste-based survey by the Nitish Kumar government is welcome. Those who are opposing it argue that it violates the fundamental right to privacy, by compelling people to reveal their caste, which indeed sounds stupid and also ridiculous. The reason is simple. India is known as a caste-based society from time immemorial and how some political parties exploited the caste system is also known. In contrast, such a census would help expose these parties, who are garnering the benefits most, denying deserving others the same. The idea behind the caste-based census was to recognize what one means to abolish. Yes, to abolish caste-based discrimination, wealth  distribution, socio-cultural inequalities and the caste itself, it is essential to understand its expansiveness.  Thus far, the official statistical records not only help reflect reality but also play a dominant role in creating it to know how some upper-caste intellectuals had been tilted or twisted to put forth their argument against the census. It decodes the reality of some party’s political losses too. Many genuinely feel, once a caste-based census is conducted, it would do away with the fuzziness and fluidity around the non-dominant castes within the other backward classes (OBCs), and ultimately substantial data reflecting the social reality of India’s lesser-known precarious groups will be revealed. And, the Nitish Kumar government’s intentions are loud and clear as he wanted to expose the duplicity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has relied on this fuzziness and fluidity to ‘Mandalise’ itself as per its electoral needs. In this context, one may recall how the Narendra Modi government passed the economically backward class (EBC) quota months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in a bid to woo the OBC vote bank.

Against that backdrop, this caste-based census would prevent people from confusing censorship of caste with the abolition of caste and hence trying only to nip it. That apart, the caste-based census would make sure that everybody’s caste is counted and that the privileged sections of the upper castes lose the advantage of anonymity and their facetious claims of being casteless while enjoying the privileges such as inherited wealth and access to education would come crashing down. It would also make visible “the most powerful and most pampered minority: the upper caste”. It would make visible how the upper caste is still gate-keeping the other backward classes (OBCs), scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) from academic ventures by rendering them ‘unfit’ for admissions in higher education, teaching positions as well as administrative jobs. This census would acknowledge the presence and impact of the systemic deprivation the caste structure has inflicted upon the citizens even more glaringly. The wealth distribution in our nation is a direct outcome of the historic presence of caste. According to a paper published, based on data collated by the World Inequality Database for the years 1961 to 2012, SC communities own 7-8 per cent of total wealth (11 percentage points less than their population share), ST communities own 5-7 per cent of total wealth (1-2 percentage points less than their population share). OBC communities own 32 per cent of total wealth in 2002 which increased only marginally in 2012 resulting in an overall worsening of the gap relative to population share (-7.8 per cent to -10.2 per cent), due to a considerable increase in their population share.

The share of upper caste groups has shown an increase from 39 per cent to 41 per cent in their total wealth from 2002 to 2012. Relative to their increase in numbers, this group improved its share from +14 per cent to +18 per cent in the 10-year period. Amidst such circumstances, it becomes important to have concrete and accurate data to comprehend the socio-economic precarity of various caste groups.

Therefore, the data collected through the caste census would become instrumental in understanding the achievements and shortcomings of the reservation policies by bringing the massive gap between economic and social capital acquisition within and between the general category as well as the reserved sections to the fore. Undoubtedly, the census would also help probe into the effectiveness and efficiency of the parameters of socio-economic and educational backwardness for the OBCs. The parameters of backwardness that have so far been calibrated based on a group’s social indicators about the SCs need to be over-turned and re-calibrated to reflect the relative backwardness in comparison to the “general category”. Hence, the verdict delivered by the apex court is in line with the changing times. However, people against states conducting such exercises may point out that census in urban areas comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and caste census under the Ministry of Home Affairs: Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner of India. But then aren’t states better equipped to see the peoples’ needs?