There is a renewed demand from many corners, especially a segment of political leadership to collect a citizen’s caste affiliation during the 2011 census of India. The GOI in principle has agreed to collect information on caste in 2011 census; but what is not clear is as to what kind of information on caste will be collected; will it be collected during the house listing operation or during the population census. It appears the whole process of ‘upward social mobility’ will get up-side-down to ‘downward social mobility’ or what we can call as Competitive Backwardness. In the following, however, I identify the difficulties in collecting caste data through the ongoing operations relating to census 2011.
1. Operational Difficulties in Collecting Caste in Census 2011:
The census is undertaken in two phases. A house listing operation (Phase 1) precedes the population enumeration (phase 2) usually scheduled during months of February and March of the census years. The house listing for census 2011 is already in progress.
House Listing Operation collects information on SCs & STs (see item 15 in the attached proforma):
Item 15: If SC* (1) or ST* (2) Other (3)
* Note: Scheduled Caste can be only from Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists and not from other religion. Schedule Tribe can be from any religion.
However, information on Religion is not collected during house listing operations. Since information on the SCs and STs are collected using a list provided by the government as a check list similar arrangement can be made to collect information on other castes but all clubbed in an additional category OBC (other backward classes). There is some logical problem in such an effort as it is the caste identity (not class) which will be used to classify them as ‘Other Backward Class’. Yet this is an easier process to compile OBC information provided there is a checklist of OBC castes provided by government of India.
Suggested format of the new Item 15 in the ‘house listing proforma:
if SC* (1) or ST* (2) OBC (3) Other (4)
However, this is not feasible now; due to the fact that the phase 1 or the house listing operation is already on all over India and it is too late to incorporate this information. Further according to news paper announcements, the caste data will be collected as an additional question – “what is your cast”. This question now can be asked only in phase 2 which is known as Population Enumeration Operation undertaken during March-April 2011. Since there is no ready list of OBCs for cross checking during the data collection stage itself, it has to be an open question asked immediacy after the questions on religion (Q. 7), SC (Q.8) and ST (Q.9) as follows:
Phase II : Population Enumeration| February –March 2011
Q. 7: Religion (Write name of the religion in full)
Q. 8: If Scheduled Caste, Write name of the SC from the list supplied
Q .9: If Scheduled Tribe, write name of the ST from the list supplied
Proposed Q.10: What is your Caste? _____________________
Such a question will generate a lot of caste reporting exclusive to each state and regions within state. Often the same caste is identified/pronounced and spelled differently and also the same caste has different status in different states. Collating such information subsequent to conclusion of Census will be a herculean effort and can be the basis for controversies. Therefore one needs to be clear and careful as to what kind of caste data have to be collected in Q.10 of the population enumeration proforma using the currently proposed question ‘what is your caste?’.
Another option is to consider collecting information only on ‘as to whether the individual belongs to a OBC category? As discussed earlier (see Option 1above) this can be done only if there is an approved list of OBCs provided apriori by Government of India. In the absence of approved OBC list, self-reported categorization will generate huge errors. Since, eliciting OBC information during enumeration will have to be done as an additional question after the question on religion there can be errors due to misreporting and confounding effects. Thus self-reporting of the OBC status will be affected considerably by the religious affiliation. Note that if the OBC information is collected during the house listing such errors would be low as no question on religion precedes. The recent debates on extension of ‘reservation’ benefits to individuals belonging to religions other than Hindus have indeed generated anxiety and also expectations especially amongst the minorities.
2. Possible Contamination of Census Information
India has a long uninterrupted history of undertaking census every 10 years since the late 19th century and certainly a regular pan-Indian census since the Independence. Indian Census is respected across the world for its quality and academic content. A lot of debates and research has fed the number and type of question to be included in the ‘house listing’ and ‘population enumeration’ exercises. It is useful to note that the last time caste information was collected was during census 1931.
Further, the concepts, definitions and questions are standardized in such a way that the inter-censal comparisons are possible. Such comparisons are the basis to evaluate a number of economic, social, educational and work/employment parameters for India and its many states and even districts. Therefore, any addition or alteration and even change in placement of a question, both in the listing and enumeration proforme can cause changes in the quality of data in other words can contaminate census information.
(a) For example, the errors in self-reported SCs/STs and OBCs category can be enormous by boosting the respective population shares which can prompt increase in the quota shares. This can happen because – those not SCs/STs may get motivated to report themselves as such; so will be the case for OBCs. Since the OBC reservation debate is in its peak one can expect an extra caution amongst the OBCs to ensure reporting; while there can also be misreporting thus boosting the share of OBCs in the population. Even communities with no caste identities may innovate or identify a caste for themselves.
(b) Distorted Occupations: It is likely that caste question can affect the reporting of occupations. The possibility is large due to expected gains offered by the government based on caste/occupation linked targeting such as programs for ‘weavers’ and so on. There can many other distortions or contamination of data.
3. What we know about OBC Identity? What can be Done?
‘Mid-Term Census’ (MTC)
There are two types of demands in the recent past with respect to additional data to be collected from the Indian decennial census. (a) The caste data with a focus on identifying correct share of OBCs since the Mandal commission linked reservations are based on old data from 1931 and not so valid local level surveys. (b) Another demand has been to collect information so as to assess the accessibility to the human capital enhancing government investments and provisioning of social services/safety nets.
It is therefore conceived that time is ripe for a ‘Mid-Term Census (MTC)’ say every five years after the main Census which can collected data on caste as well as on social parameters and other qualitative variables. The mega programs such as the MG-NREGA, PDS and ICDS have not been evaluated so as to find out the efficacy of the program and undertake cost benefit estimates. Further delinking such data collection through a MTC will help in keeping the comprehensive nature of the main census that too with no contamination which is essential in inter-censal comparisons. There are many other countries around the world who conduct census with 5 year interval. However, cost considerations will be important aspects in such a decision making, which is not enunciated in this note.
Special Surveys by Independent Agencies / National Sample Surveys
The other possibility is to commission special surveys and improve the scope and coverage of the National Sample Surveys. The current sample size in the NSSO is around two hundred thousand if both the central and state samples are merged. The NSSO in its 55th and 61st round have collected OBC data, so are a few other independent surveys such as the National Council of Applied Economic Research’s (NCAER) human development surveys, and the National Health and Family Surveys. The state specific distribution of population according to broad caste categories are presented in the following table and graphs. One notices a large disparity between states especially Kerala and West Bengal which needs further discussion.