[op-ed snap] The tools for counting

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Mains Paper 1: Social Issues | Salient features of Indian Society

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC),  Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR)

Mains level: Lacunae in current data available for population and how the inclusion of caste in census data collection can help in better planning


Context

Census & SECC 2011

  1. As the 2011 Census approached, demands for inclusion of data on caste in Census reached a crescendo
  2. The government at that time was opposed to collecting caste data and blocked it by claiming that it was logistically impossible for the Census
  3. It said that caste information could be collected via the planned Below Poverty Line (BPL) Census, later renamed the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC)
  4. The hasty inclusion of the caste question in the SECC has resulted in largely unusable data

Caste data collection: Differing views

  1. The simple act of asking about caste creates a chasm within society
  2. Colonial Censuses, beginning with the first Census in 1871, included questions about caste and used these data to divide and conquer India by first privileging Brahmins as interpreters of Indian culture and then targeting them as the roots of caste-based oppression and inequality
  3. This passion for classification has also been termed as the source of anti-Brahmin movements
  4. The colonial Censuses via the process of recording caste generated a conception of community as a homogeneous and classifiable community and thereby influenced the processes of political representation

Change that has happened

  1. Indian society has undergone a tremendous transformation since 1931
  2. Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and upper castes are still being defined largely using data from 1931 Census
  3. Land ownership that bolstered the power of upper castes has lost its hold
  4. Land fragmentation and decades of agricultural stagnation have turned many upper caste landowners into marginal farmers barely eking out a subsistence

Effects of landlessness

  1. Landlessness, once the bane of Dalit existence, has left the landless better poised to take advantage of rising rural wages, particularly construction wages
  2. According to NSS data, the bottom fourth of forward castes are poorer than the top half of Dalits
  3. India Human Development Survey shows that 56% of Dalit children ages 8-11 cannot read but neither can 32% of forward caste and 47% of OBC children
  4. Economic growth of the past century, combined with strong affirmation action undertaken by successive governments of the independent nation, may have changed relative fortunes of various groups

Caste data collection

  1. Collection of caste data is not easy
  2. The SECC asked interviewers to write down the name of the caste exactly as articulated by the respondent
  3. By some reports, it has revealed as many as 46 lakh castes
  4. This is because sometimes the same caste is spelt in different ways, at other times some individuals report their jati and others upjati making it difficult to create mutually exclusive categories

Preparing for 2021

  1. We have nearly three years before the Census of 2021 and are fortunate to have data from the SECC and technologies rooted in machine learning at our disposal
  2. It would be possible to set up an expert group that uses the SECC data in conjunction with other data sources such as matrimonial advertisements and State-specific Scheduled Castes/OBC lists to make a comprehensive list of castes and condense them into meaningful categories via machine learning tools
  3. These categories could then be validated by domain experts from the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) institutions in various States to come up with a district-specific list of castes that would cover more than 90% of individuals in any given district
  4. Interviewers could use this precoded list to allow respondents to self-classify with a small residual group’s responses being recorded verbatim and categorized later
  5. This is very similar to the technique through which occupational and industrial classification systems are created

Way forward

  1. Collection of data on castes is inherently risky
  2. A caste Census could easily roil the waters in ways that are hard to predict
  3. Without better and more current data, our discourse on caste and affirmative action remains dominated by decisions made by the colonial administration
  4. If we really want to collect data on caste in India and not let the discourse about Indian society be shaped by the political exigencies of colonial India, the time to plan is now
Minority Issues – Dalits, OBC, Reservations, etc.
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