Now that data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) is out for 2011, the usual lot of caste warriors are asking the government to release the specific data on castes, possibly because they feel there is mileage to be gained by arguing that a particular caste is worse off—and what better time to raise the issue than on the eve of the Bihar elections? The government, presumably for the same reasons of not wanting to cause more agitations, has withheld data on specific castes. It has, of course, given data for broad caste groups. Thus, while 74.5% of all rural households have the chief earner making under R5,000 per month, the proportion is 83.6% for SC households and 86.6% for ST households. The figures are 8.3% for the chief earner making more than Rs 10,000 per month for all households, a mere 4.7% for SC households and an even lower 4.5% for ST households.
While such data has not been made public for individual castes, it should be put out since this was, after all, a caste survey. Many argue this is a bad idea since, till the British did the caste count, few bothered about caste—the logic therefore, is that releasing such data would further accentuate caste tensions. While that may or may not be correct, the fact is that the genie is out of the bottle—most politics has centred around caste for decades, and that is why we have caste-based reservations and, in any case, NSS data routinely canvasses data along broad caste lines—SC/ST/OBC. If it is okay to get consumption data for SC/ST/OBC, why not get detailed information on specific castes from the SECC? Once the data is out, it will help guide serious policy formation.
While releasing such data, it is important the government itself understand how to interpret this—the data release should be accompanied by such an explanation. Based on broad SECC data, for instance, it is possible to argue poverty is primarily related to caste since SC/ST households have a greater proportion of those earning under R5,000 per month. But look at the data in more detail and you see that here are 88.8 million ‘other households’—that is, non-SC/ST—who earn under Rs 5,000 per month versus 27.6 million for SCs and 17 million for ST. In other words, caste alone is not a determinant of poverty. In 2004-05, analysis of NCAER’s all-India survey showed households headed by upper-castes who were illiterate earned Rs 31,511 per year as compared to Rs 22,456 for illiterate ST households—but when STs studied up to matriculation, their earnings rose to Rs 36,453.
So while upper caste households, on average, earned more than ST ones, this was because they had better education—34.4% of upper caste households were headed by graduates as compared to 12.1% in the case of STs. Take almost any other parameter such as occupation or development levels of states where households are located, and they are greater determinants of poverty levels. For 2013-14, PRICE’s all-India survey shows similar trends—upper caste illiterate households earned Rs 87,862 per year versus Rs 138,037 for ST households that were headed by people who had studied till primary or middle school. At an all-India basis, upper castes earned Rs 240,332 versus Rs 156,311 for STs, but that’s because 29.3% of upper castes were graduates versus a mere 11.4% for STs. Since proper analysis will yield both the right conclusions and important policy prescriptions, the government would be well advised to release the detailed caste-wise data.