Given that it is going to be accompanied by the delivery of a national population register and a national unique identity scheme, the 15th Census has been appropriately fted by the Union home minister as the biggest exercise since humankind came into existence. Census 2011 will cover 1.2 billion people, with 2.5 million people being deployed to track them. But a new spanner has been thrown into the works and nobody quite knows what will be churned up as a result. For the first time in independent India, India looks set to get a caste-based census. This concession represents a sharp turnaround in government policy. It was just earlier this month that the home ministry, which is the nodal ministry for census purposes on whose turf the office of the Registrar General of India (which oversees the census exercise) is housed, had declared to the Cabinet: Population census is not the ideal instrument for collection of details on caste. The operational difficulties are so many that there is a grave danger that the basic integrity of the census data may be compromised and the fundamental population count itself could get distorted. But once the Oppositioneveryone from the JD (U), SP, RJD, Akali Dal, Shiv Sena, AIADMK and DMK to BJP, CPM and CPI (M)got together, the Congress cravenly caved in.
The Left partieswhose theoretical edifice should actually have led to a contrary positionjustified the demand for a caste-based census with the most ingenious of arguments: society should not be divided on the basis of caste, but as long as it is, why shouldnt the census address this division We think it right to counterquestionwere things different when the Indian Constitution was being formulated They werent. But the Constitutions architects took the position that caste would continue to be ignored in public life. The Constitutions chief architect BR Ambedkar observed, How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation If we must turn our back on this long tradition, we must be well prepared for all the resulting implications. It is patently obvious that we arent. We still havent found a statistical way around the problems encountered by the commissioner of the last caste-based census, JH Hutton. Caste groups and their status differ from region to region. The enumerators are far from ready to adjudicate claims across 4,000-odd caste groupings. And so on. Finally, if we make a list of all that the truly disempowered needhealth, education, food subsidies, etca caste-based census seems to have little centrality in effecting justice.