India’s caste census and the chimera of data-driven policymaking
Caste census, once again, is the talk of the town—at least in the Indian state of Bihar. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, has gone public about it. He appears to be all set to initiate it in his state irrespective of the Centre's non-concurrence. Apparently, there is a consensus on it among the political parties in Bihar.
Interestingly, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been party to the two resolutions passed in the Bihar Assembly on the issue, the ruling dispensation at the Centre is wary of such an enterprise. The latter has filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court opposing the move. It may be recalled that the demands for caste census had reached a crescendo around 2010, compelling the then Central Government to opt for collection of socio-economic data along with the general census data in 2011. It is another matter that the caste-related data of the 2011 census was never released; however, some parts of the socio-economic data were made public in 2015. The official version refers to gross errors in caste-based data as the reason for its non-release. Political parties and opinion-makers supportive of the caste census suspect the government's motive for the non-release of the data and make light of the official alibi. Reportedly, they charge the government for its intent of hiding the extent of socio-economic backwardness in India.
Arguably, the issue of a caste-based census is inextricably linked to the politics of competitive backwardness that has unfolded in the country since the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report. The inclusion of new castes and communities in the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and the attendant determination of creamy layer, have often been accompanied by some kind of data gathering exercises undertaken by different commissions/committees appointed by different state governments. Yet, one hardly needs to belabour the point that they have essentially been political initiatives with occasional dollops of juridical interventions. The inclusion of Maratha in the list of OBCs in Maharashtra (whatever be the final judicial pronouncement over it) is a recent case-in-point coming over the waves of such demands for Patidars in Gujarat and/or Jats in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
Indeed, there is no harm in interest-based political mobilisations in a democratic polity. What is surprising, however, is the urge to back political claims of backwardness based on supposedly scientific data which would eventually lead to evidence-based policymaking to achieve goals of social justice. The recent pronouncements of Nitish Kumar veer towards such an understanding. He is tireless in advocating for the need for granular caste data to make robust public policies. And he is so convinced of the indispensability of such a data-gathering exercise that he is committing his entire state machinery to achieve this goal—and that too by going solo.
Without going into various speculations about his motives—from his need to politically position himself vis-à-vis the BJP (his alliance partner) to his strategy to project himself as the ultimate messiah of the OBCs in Bihar—we wish to underline the futility of the caste census.
First, we do not need a fresh round of data collection exercises to learn that wealth and privileges are unevenly distributed across castes and communities in India. We have umpteen rounds of National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data to tell us that upper caste Hindus do much better on all indicators of good life compared to OBCs, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). We have rounds of National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data to let us know that upper caste Hindus have higher life expectancy and better access to health facilities than others. We have plenty of data coming out of All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) and District Information System for Education (DISE) to reveal the gross asymmetry between Hindu upper castes and others in terms of gross enrolment ratio, dropout rates, and overall educational achievements across groups and communities. Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) is a good indicator of the share of different groups and communities in the labour force. Even some much-discussed reports, such as the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee Report and Justice Ranganath Misra Commission Report—though concerned with minorities—offer us an overall good sense of distribution of opportunities across social strata. In fact, the idea of socio-religious community (SRC) is a fine conceptual innovation by the Sachar Committee, which addresses the two-fold sources of structural determination in India: Caste and religion.
Second, besides these macro-level data, plenty of scholarly social-scientific research carried out by individual researchers has shed light on caste-based forms of discrimination—be it in terms of accessing bank loans or good schools and hospitals or good jobs. There are fine pieces of research which tell us about the dominance of high castes in urban wealth formation and the preponderance of low castes among landless agricultural labourers and the urban precariat. The problem is that, as policymakers, we are unfortunately often opaque to meaningful social scientific research. Notwithstanding the rhetoric about closer ties between social sciences and policy making, they remain mutually isolated.
Does one need an all-India survey to know that the high percentage of out-of-pocket expenses on healthcare is the single biggest reason driving millions into the poverty trap? And who would be these millions? Those who are generally poor and—given our social morphology—largely from low caste groups and minorities. Is it not obvious from this that an accessible and affordable quality healthcare system is not only an antidote to poverty but a great support to the low caste groups? Likewise, we know enough from existing research that good residential schools with well-defined quotas for the underprivileged, namely Navodaya and Kasturba Vidyalayas, are potent harbingers of socially just change than a fresh round of census.
Lastly, amidst the apparent attractiveness of data-driven policymaking, there is a lurking danger: The reduction of a host of socio-economic issues (which have a bearing on social justice) to the singular pursuit of caste-based quota in public employment and admissions to publicly-funded higher educational institutions. The idea of proportional representation in offices, schools, colleges, universities and the like in terms of a given community's share in the overall population has become an article of faith for the supporters of social justice in India. Regrettably, the latter have been politically complicit in unleashing an economic regime that invariably leads to shrinkage of public education and employment as such. However, that does not restrain them from being extraordinarily vocal on the issue of caste quota. In a way, it helps them—lest their political subterfuges get called out.
In a larger sense, it is ultimately the failure of Lohiaite (following Ram Manohar Lohia) socialist politics in India. In Bihar, one can trace the reductionist version of socialist politics to the introduction of caste-based quota at the state level by Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur in 1979. Rightly held for its innovation in terms of gradation of socio-economic backwardness and inclusion of Muslim communities under the purview of OBC, this policy ultimately helped render social justice as merely caste-based quota. The earlier capaciousness of socialist politics in the state, when agrarian issues concerning tenants, labourers, irrigation, canal rates, employment, socio-economic oppression at the village level would equally form part of the agenda, yielded to monochromatic identity politics of caste qua reservation. The likes of Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav further fuelled this reductionist process through their binary political rhetoric of forward and backward classes.
No wonder, in India and in Bihar in particular, a large number of political cadres of communist parties—despite having been engaged in class politics for decades—jumped on the Laloo-induced political bandwagon of social justice (read: caste-based reservation) without any qualms. Bihar is a curious case of slow and eventual decimation of class-based politics by caste-based politics. Nitish Kumar's caste-based census may end up reinforcing this reductionist politics initiated by his venerated political mentor Karpoori Thakur. That would certainly spell doom not only for Bihar, but for India at large.
Nabanipa Bhattacharjee and Manish Thakur, respectively, are professors of sociology at University of Delhi and Indian Institute of Management Calcutta.