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Caste Census Essay

3707 words - 15 pages

COMMENTARY

Caste and Census: A Forward Looking Strategy
Sonalde Desai

In modern India, vast quantities of research have documented caste-based inequalities in many dimensions of well-being. If these inequalities are not simply imagined but reflect social processes that deserve public policy attention, incorporating questions about caste in the census is imperative. However, there is a need to devise an accounting framework that has clarity of purpose since there are many complexities involved in collecting caste data.

O

pponents of inclusion of caste in the census argue that for a society which seeks to abolish castebased inequalities, a census that inquires about caste ...view middle of the document...

However, it is easier to suggest that caste be counted (e g, the EPW editorial of 22 May 2010), than to devise an accounting framework. Much of the difficulty emerges from lack of clarification regarding the purpose of this accounting.

Sonalde Desai (sonalde.desai@gmail.com) is with the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi, and the Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA.

Why Collect Caste Data?
The most recent demand for a count of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has come from a powerful OBC lobby that hopes for an increase in OBC reservations if the
july 17, 2010

count turns out to be higher than expected. The 27% reservation for OBCs is based on the estimate by the Mandal Commission that OBCs form about 52% of the population and since all OBC families are not poor or “backward”, a quota limit set at about half the estimated population makes sense. However, the Mandal Commission’s claim of 52% of the population being OBC was based on somewhat flimsy empirical evidence and if the Census 2011 identifies more than 52% of the population as being OBC, this would bolster the claims for higher representation. Successive rounds of National Sample Survey (NSS) have documented the number of individuals identifying themselves as OBC at 36% in 1999-2000 and at 41% in 2004-05. Hence it is unlikely that the actual count will exceed 52%. However there exist other, less partisan, arguments for a caste census. Social background continues to define privilege and lack thereof in Indian society resulting in demands for positive discrimination from marginalised groups. Unfortunately, these demands are continually stymied by lack of data. What data exist from sample surveys continue to document disparities in education, income and standards of living between different socio-religious communities. Table 1 (p 11), based on the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), documents substantial disparities in different markers of human development across different social groups. This nationally representative survey of 41,554 households was organised by researchers from National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland and was carried out in 2004-05. The IHDS is not unique in documenting these disparities. A vast number of studies based on NSS, National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and other sample surveys have documented inequalities between scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs), OBCs and forward castes. However, utilisation of survey statistics is by no means adequate for evidence-based policy design. Survey data suffer from two shortcomings. First, even in large surveys such as the NSS, sample sizes get extremely small once
vol xlv no 29
EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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COMMENTARY

we begin to compare groups on several dimensions of disadvantage. For example, if we wanted to address the question of whether Christian dalits are disadvantaged like other dalits...

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