Only the Central Government is entitled to conduct Census

Context: The Centre government has opposed the Bihar government’s decision to conduct a caste-based survey in the state, stating that it is a ‘Union subject’.

Major Highlights:

  • The Ministry of Home Affairs filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court, which stated, “According to the Centre, the census is a Union list subject (in the seventh schedule), and that it is the Centre only which can conduct it under the Section 3 of the Census Act 1948 Act.”
  • The affidavit also states, “The central government is committed to taking all affirmative actions for the upliftment of the SC/ST/OBC in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of India and the applicable law.”
  • Background: The decision of a caste-based census was taken by the Bihar cabinet in 2022. The Supreme Court of India dismissed a plea challenging the Bihar caste survey in January 2023. The Bihar government’s Caste survey is now underway. In 2015, the Karnataka government conducted a caste survey which was not released.

Caste-based census in India:

  • Caste census means inclusion of caste-wise tabulation of India’s population in the Census exercise. India has counted and published caste data — from 1951 to 2011 — of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes only. 
  • A caste-based census gathers data on economic status and other caste-related information of every Indian family, both in rural and urban areas to help the authorities define deprivation indicators and map inequalities at a broader level. 
  • This data helps better policy-making by identifying both disadvantaged and privileged sections of society. Many political parties feel that the present reservation being based on the last caste census conducted in 1931 does not reflect the correct numbers.

The first and last caste census:

  • In India, there have been caste-based censuses conducted in the past. The first caste-based census took place in 1881 during the colonial period
  • The 1931 census was the last exercise to enumerate caste data. The population of OBCs was 52% as last recorded in the 1931 caste census.
  • The UPA government conducted Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011. It was the first caste-based census since 1931. The data was, however, not published. 

Is Caste Census constitutionally mandated?

  • Article 340 of the Constitution authorises the appointment of a commission to investigate the conditions of SEBCs and the difficulties under which they labour. 
  • The commission is assigned to make recommendations for the Union or any State necessary for the removal of such difficulties and to improve the conditions of the Socially and Economically Backward Classes. E.g., Justice G Rohini Commission in 2017

Rationale behind the caste census:

  • For a significant period of time post-independence, there has been a certain level of “caste-blindness” to policy-making and this has been accompanied by the wishful thinking that if we do not address caste and make it even more glaring it will wither away. 
  • Caste has been deeply entrenched social structure in India for centuries. Census exercise in Independent India has never enumerated castes, except SC & ST, as a matter of policy. However, recently there has been growing demand for Caste enumeration in the census. 
  • The idea behind the caste-based census is to recognise what we mean to abolish (in order to abolish caste, caste-based discrimination, caste-based distribution of wealth and socio-cultural inequalities generated by caste it is essential to understand its expansiveness).

Need for Caste-based census: 

  • Demographic changes: Existing reservation limits of 27% to OBC, and overall 50% legally mandated cap on reservation is based on pre-independent census data, which needs to be revised/reviewed keeping in mind present-day demographic changes. 
  • Identifying Vulnerable Communities: Caste-based census can help identify the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities/caste groups to reveal disparities in literacy rates, income levels, access to healthcare etc. for targeted interventions. E.g., OBC Sub-categorisation can identify/prioritise the most deprived communities within OBC list. 
  • Accurate data for Policy Formulation: Can provide accurate/up-to-date data on socio-economic conditions of different caste groups for formulating evidence-based policies and reducing inclusion and exclusion errors. E.g., Evaluate legitimacy of reservation demands. 
  • Assessment of Affirmative Action: Enables government to measure effectiveness of previous policies/initiatives targeted towards specific castes and make necessary adjustments for better outcomes.
  • Constitutional Imperative: Article 340 calls for creation of a commission to evaluate the conditions of socially and educationally disadvantaged.

Significant challenges and concerns associated with conducting caste-based census:

  • Complexity: Data collection is complex due to huge population, multiple caste identities and presence of individuals unwilling to disclose their caste identity. 
  • Cost and Resources: Conducting comprehensive caste-based census requires significant financial and human resources. And often, due to challenges involved, the costs may outweigh the benefits involved.
  • Social Tensions: As Caste is a sensitive issue in India, conducting caste-based census may lead to heightened social tensions and conflicts.
  • Privacy and Misuse of Data: Caste-related information can be sensitive and raise privacy concerns. It can be misused for electoral purposes, vote-bank politics etc. rather than genuinely addressing social inequalities.
  • Perpetuate caste identity: Caste census can reinforce caste identity, intensify caste-based divisions and may perpetuate discrimination.
  • Political Resistance: Idea of caste-based census may face opposition from various groups/political entities, potentially delaying its implementation. 

Way Forward

  • Category-based, if not caste-based, enumeration of the census will not only help the government in collecting data that mirrors social inequalities but also make decisions for course correction. India needs to make bold decisions through data and statistics in the way the United States does to tackle race issues, by collecting data around race, class, language, inter-race marriages etc.
  • Caste may be the dominant but not the only/sole criterion of backwardness in the country. Need for improving HDI, education, health outcomes for the population irrespective of caste, and effective implementation of affirmative action policies for the upliftment of the marginalised sections. 

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