Caste census will benefit the deprived

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This will be a historic opportunity to tackle the correlation between poverty, caste and landlessness

Surinder S Jodhka

Illustration: Anand Naorem

AFTER MORE than a year’s debate on enumerating caste in Census 2011, it was finally decided in a Cabinet meeting on 19 May that all Indians would be asked their caste and religion along with their economic status. The caste census will be conducted as part of the ‘below poverty line’ (BPL) survey, to be carried out by the Ministries of Rural Development and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation along with the Registrar General of India. Though poverty surveys have been done periodically by the Ministry of Rural Development, they have been standalone exercises. This time, the data on variables indicating the economic status of households to determine its inclusion or exclusion in the BPL category, and the information on caste and religion will presumably be added to the already collected Census 2011 figures.

Even though poverty and determination of BPL status has always been an extremely contentious subject, no one seems particularly bothered about the new method of calculating the poor or about the use of new technology. However, inclusion of caste along with religion is proving hard to accept. Why should we enumerate caste when we are in the second decade of the 21st century? Even the British who had started the exercise found it problematic and decided to take it out of Census 1941. Enumeration of caste and community, as the historical research on the colonial Census shows, only reinforces such ‘pre-modern’ identities. Isn’t it another instance of populist politics and giving in to the obscurantist forces and wily politicians? No, not at all!

In ‘mainstream’ sociological literature, caste was viewed as an aspect of the traditional cultural life of the Hindus, which was to gradually disappear with the processes of economic development and modernisation. For large sections of the urban Indian middle classes, this has indeed happened. Caste no longer determines their occupation or everyday social life. It is of some relevance only in matters of kinship and marriage, and there too the younger generation is moving ahead and choosing partners without worrying too much about caste and community.

The idea is not to enumerate its cultural presence but to use it as an index of development

However, caste means different things to different people and its effects vary significantly across different categories, depending on where one is located on the hierarchical scale of the traditional system. While for the so-called upper castes, it was simply a matter of rituals and cultural practices, for those below the ‘pollution’ line, or close to it, the ex-untouchables and the ‘backwards’, it always meant denial and humiliation. It also meant deprivation and discrimination. Not only were those from the ex-untouchables made to live outside the main village, they were also not allowed to own and formally cultivate land. It was for this reason that when land was being transferred to tillers under the Land Reform legislations, rarely did it go to Dalits. Their traditional entitlements were only to the labour work on land and the callings of their castes. The oft-cited correlation between poverty, caste and landlessness does not particularly surprise the social scientist familiar with the rural realities.

Caste, thus, has several dimensions. Enumeration of caste today is not being demanded by those who benefited from the system but by its victims. And the idea is not to enumerate the extent of its cultural presence or ideological hold but to use it as an indicator of development and deprivation. If the poor are predominantly from specific social categories and communities, policymakers need to know this. A good policy can only emerge from a good understanding and acknowledgement of the reality. A caste Census would only help us in moving from a mere quantitative notion of poverty to a more substantive qualitative understanding of persistent inequalities and deprivations.

Surinder S Jodhka is Professor of sociology, JNU.
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