Having announced that caste will indeed be counted in the Census of 2011, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is busy demonstrating once again the crucial difference between taking a decision and acting decisively. The sudden agreement arrived at in the Lok Sabha in early May was followed by prolonged conflicts that seemed more vehement within parties than across them.
The Group of Ministers (GoM) formed to resolve the matter decided to include caste, but undermined its own decision by linking caste enumeration with the National Population Register (NPR) process at its biometric data capture stage. Vigorous opposition has since forced the GoM to backtrack and pass the buck to the Union Cabinet. In short, the GoM has wasted three precious months in prolonged indecision. The biggest loser here is the Congress Party, which looks like it lacks both direction and determination. On this issue, direction is useless without determination because there is no middle ground – one either counts caste or refuses to count it. Given the tight schedule for the Census of 2011, time favours the opponents of caste enumeration, who only have to delay and dissimulate in order to ensure victory. The proposal to club the collection of caste data with that of biometric data under the NPR was precisely this sort of backdoor sabotage because it was a non-starter as a genuine option. It “orphaned” caste data by delinking it from other census data on literacy, occupation, household assets, etc; it was vulnerable to uncertainties of coverage and long delays; and it risked compromising the anonymity of the census. There is still time – but barely enough – to salvage things; further delays or decoys will surely kill the project.
To turn things around and facilitate decisive action, responsibility needs to be clearly fixed. The Office of the Registrar General of India (ORGI), popularly known as the Census of India, is the only organisation with the necessary expertise and experience to take on a task of this magnitude and complexity. All talk of handing over caste and tribe data to the social justice and tribal affairs ministries should be scotched immediately as these ministries do not have the know-how to handle such a complex task. While their inputs should certainly be sought, the primary responsibility for collecting, collating and analysing caste data has to be vested in the ORGI, which has always handled the data on individual scheduled tribes and castes. Next, a high level task force to advise and assist the ORGI must be constituted immediately. The most urgent tasks are those that must be completed before the crucial phase of house-to-house population enumeration scheduled for February 2011.
The task force’s first priority must be to decide on the number, location and precise wording of the questions on caste that are to be added to the census schedules. One question will obviously have to straightforwardly ask the respondent to name his/her caste. However, the precise wording of this simple question needs to be considered carefully, not only in English but in each of the 16 languages in which the census schedules are canvassed. Since it is known that a single question will often not be enough to identify caste unambiguously, at least one and possibly two more questions will be needed to facilitate disambiguation wherever necessary. These questions must probe for synonyms, sub-sets and super-sets: i e, alternative names (if any) for the respondent’s caste, and the names of the smaller and larger caste-clusters or groups (if any) to which the respondent’s caste belongs. The pros and cons of alternative wordings need to be evaluated, with special attention to regional specificities. Though they may seem small, other details are also very important, such as the placement of the question, layout of the schedules and adequate support to enumerators and supervisors via the respective instruction manuals.
An equally urgent pre-enumeration task is to produce a preliminary listing of caste names that can assist enumerators and will greatly reduce the incidence of ambiguous data. Putting together the lists already available in published sources like the Anthropological Survey of India’s “People of India” project (which included a volume specifically devoted to caste and community names), the reports of the central and state backward classes commissions and reports of special commissions or committees that have gathered data on caste, and academic research studies will all go a long way towards jump-starting this process. Every state census office can be asked to prepare such lists, disaggregated wherever possible to the district level.
Post-enumeration tasks include the interpretation and disambiguation of data, to be followed by consolidation and aggregation. The most crucial consideration here is to ensure maximum flexibility. Given the technology now available, it should be possible to devise reversible strategies for aggregation based on access to low-level categories that are very close to the primary data. In other words, the basic building blocks out of which larger caste categories are to be constructed should be as close as possible to the “anonymised” household level data. This will enable larger caste categories to be deconstructed and reconstructed as needed. The post-enumeration analysis also needs to consider any special procedures that may be required to address issues such as inter-caste marriages and multi-caste households, or caste categories appropriate to minority groups like Muslims or Christians. Finally, a policy for the release of data has to be put in place that can respond to the needs of the State, social movements and social science.
Given the magnitude of the task – the enumeration of thousands of castes and tribes across 1,200 million people – it is easy to feel overwhelmed and pessimistic. But the fact is that having moved mountains of comparable magnitude in the past, the Census of India is eminently capable of undertaking caste enumeration in the world-historical project that is the Census of 2011. But the UPA government must supply the firm political commitment that can, in turn, inspire the dedication to detail essential for success.