The government is probably right to insist that the 2021 Census collect data on the number of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the country even though there is considerable opposition to the plan. There is little doubt that collecting such data helps reinforce the caste system with all its attendant ills, but as long as India’s policies—reservations in colleges and in jobs—and politics are driven by caste, it is hypocritical to not collect data on various caste groups. The day that major political parties decide to end the policy of appeasing various caste groups, India can stop collecting such data. And, in any case, such data is being collected anyway for SC and ST groups; it makes little difference that this is now going to be collected for OBCs as well. Data for SC/STs are collected by both the Census and the National Sample Survey (NSS) while data for OBCs are collected by only the NSS.
The question that the government needs to answer before it starts collecting the data, though, is what it will do once it gets the data. Estimates of the number of SC and ST households have not gone up dramatically in either the Census or the NSS over the years, but the same cannot be said about OBCs. In the 1999 NSS round that dealt with OBCs for the first time, 35.8% people said they fell in this category. Amazingly, in the next round in 2004, 40.9% people claimed to be OBCs and this rose to 44.1% in the 2011 round. If this was just due to the natural birth rate of OBCs, this would mean they were producing far more children than the general population. Since there is little evidence of this, what is more likely is that more people are reporting themselves—both the NSS and the Census are based on self-reporting—as OBCs; if the political class anxious to give reservation benefits to new groups, why not claim OBC-hood?
In which case, it is very likely more than half the population will claim OBC status; it could be even higher. At this point, will the political class clamour for the 50% reservation ceiling to be removed since it will now have firm ‘data’ to back it? And will the Supreme Court kowtow to these demands and junk the Indra Sawhney ruling that imposed this ceiling? If the political class doesn’t want to tear the country apart any further, it needs to debate the issue and come up with reasonable restrictions on its own, like on the ‘creamy layer’, on how reservations cannot be availed after one generation, etc. The fact that the government is in the Supreme Court defending reservations in promotion—after reservations in education and jobs—of course makes the possibility of the political class doing the right thing remote.