It has never been considered reliable. NSS consumption data seems far more dependable
The recent report of Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 has sparked a controversy, with the NDA government not disclosing the data pertaining to castes /sub-castes /clan /surnames thrown up by the SECC. This is more politically motivated than anything else. Despite stiff opposition from the Registrar General of India (RGI) in 2010, while planning for the SECC, pointing to numerous difficulties in collecting caste data in a reliable manner, the cause of collecting caste data was pushed by a section of OBC leaders within the UPA II. The data collected would be misleading for the following reasons.
First, the castes list evolved by the Centre differ considerably from the lists prepared by individual states /UTs. Reconciling these differences is a herculean challenge. Further, since the data has been collected by the states and not RGI, it would add to confusion in compilation and presentation of caste information.
Second, SECC has reported 4.6 million castes/sub-castes. It has also reported certain errors in the caste data of around 81 million households of a total of 330 million households in the country for which census has been carried out. It is because respondents understood different things when they were asked about their caste, as has been revealed by the enumerators involved in the SECC.
Third, in the 1980s, the Anthropological Survey of India also listed castes but spotted only about 65,000 of them—1.4% of the current 4.6 million reported. The number of castes should remain the same irrespective of the year of collection of data. This is a huge difference and the veracity of both sets of data is, therefore, in great doubt. Certainly, this is due to the interpretational mistakes in the definition of castes /sub-castes, which in turn is the result of the lack of knowledge of the planners of the survey about castes in India. Even the enumerators entrusted with the task lacked clarity on this. Fourth, tracing the history from the first caste census in 1871 to the one in 1931, census commissioners have been consistently against holding such an exercise due to complexity of caste structure in India, made more difficult by people shifting caste over time. WC Powden, Census Commissioner in 1931 in British India, had aptly remarked, “Experience at this census has shown the difficulty of getting a correct return of castes and likewise the difficulty of interpreting it for census purposes.”
In view of the above facts, it would be a gruelling task for NITI Aayog vice-chairperson Arvind Panagariya to make sense of the first caste census in independent India. A reliable headcount of India’s population by caste is to be produced by sorting out the vast database of castes and social groups. In the Anthropological Survey of the 1980s, the classification of data was limited to 7,331 communities instead of 65,000 castes (which does not bring out real picture) because it was thought to be too unwieldy a task. Recognising the enormity of the challenge of sorting people into 4.6 million castes this time, the government has not set any deadline for the Aayog.
Looking at this scenario, the moot question is: Do we really need caste census data—so unreliable and time-consuming and financially straining to sort—for allocation of funds under various schemes for poverty alleviation? I think this is not required as we have better and more reliable methods of doing so. We have a whole lot of information available through the National Sample Surveys on consumption expenditure, undertaken every five years—very useful for identification of the poor. The Tendulkar committee (2009) and the Rangarajan Committee (2014) have come out with poverty lines and NITI Aayog is in the process of making further improvements on them. Earlier, I suggested methods to update poverty line data from year to year by using the cost inflation index for keeping it realistic. To identify genuinely poor beneficiaries on the ground, the block staff have to play a big role. They are always in touch with the people living in that area and can easily verify their antecedents. The block staff need to work honestly and sincerely and district authorities have to have strict supervision on them.
To conclude, it would be a big mistake to compile caste data based on SECC, 2011. The NDA government need not be on the defensive and burden NITI Aayog with this task in haste just because some opposition political parties are putting pressure on it.
The author is a former ISS officer and former director, CSO.