Why we need the Bihar caste census


In January, Bihar began an exercise not seen previously in independent India: The rollout of a census of households that collects and publishes data on caste, jati and socio-economic well-being. The last time jati data was collected in India’s decennial census and was publicly released, Bhagat Singh was still alive.

It is not the gap in time alone that makes Bihar’s exercise historic. Given how central caste remains in Indian — and Bihari — society, a deeper quantitative understanding of the statewide size and spread of different jatis, their relative socio-economic statuses and the mapping between social and economic hierarchies is necessary, but not sufficient, for effective policymaking, citizens’ claim-making and broader economic development.

Bihar’s caste census was rolled out in two phases. The first phase, a simple enumeration of households, was completed by January 21. The second phase, which involved collecting data on caste and a host of socio-economic indicators, was launched from Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s home in Bakhtiyarpur on April 15. Though accounts vary, the census was supposed to end by late May.

Meanwhile, a batch of petitioners including Youth For Equality, a group formed with the aim of opposing caste-based policies, moved the High Court against the caste census. Apart from making some arguments on the eradication of caste through what can only be described as caste-blindness, the main legal argument goes thus: Legislative, and by extension, executive powers of the state are divided into three lists in the Seventh Schedule of our Constitution. Entry 69 of the Union List is a single word: “Census”. Therefore, the legal argument was that the caste census is illegal because only the Union government can carry out a “census”.

The state government argued that this exercise, although called a “census” was in the nature of a “survey”. The state government pointed to Entries 20, 23, 24 and 30 in the Concurrent List, which required the state to collect this information to effectively implement their welfare programmes. These entries deal with vital aspects of state functioning such as economic and social planning, social security, social insurance, labour welfare and vital statistics such as births and deaths. Entry 45 of the Concurrent List, over which both Union and state governments have legislative competence, allows states to conduct inquiries and collect statistics on any matters in the Concurrent List.

The court dealt with the first limb of the argument — on the distinction between a “census” and a “survey”, but did not deal with Entries 20, 23, 24 and 30 at all. It only said: “We do not find the collection of caste details to be inextricable (sic) linked with or related to any of the specific entries pointed out by the State and these entries are not sufficient and relevant to carry out a collection of caste details from the individual citizens.”

This, then, leads us to the following questions: Considering, to borrow the court’s words, caste and outcomes are “inextricably linked”, are caste statistics not important for social and economic planning? Won’t the formulation of social and labour policy be improved if the state has a deeper understanding of the caste of its polity? To give an example: Currently, the state mandates that (up to) 20 per cent of seats be reserved in urban and rural local bodies for members of Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) in Bihar. But EBCs are not equally distributed across local body constituencies: A blanket 20 per cent rule results in too much reservation in some places and too little in others. A count of EBC jatis will help rationalise this. For SCs, where census population counts are available, seats are reserved in proportion to the underlying SC population.

Bihar’s High Court has previously dithered on allowing relatively straightforward caste-based policies that help reduce historic inequities. When the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution mandated explicit quotas for SCs, STs and women in local bodies under Article 243(D), the Bihar HC repeatedly stayed implementation of this policy on flimsy grounds. While most states in India implemented reservations for marginalised groups in Panchayats and Municipal councils in the mid to late ’90s, Bihar did so almost a decade later, in 2006.

The Supreme Court, on May 18, refused to stay the HC’s order because it was only an interim order. On July 3, the High Court will hear the matter once more, although no one is sure what is left to be decided now in the HC.

The year 1931, when the last caste census was run, is also important because it marked the first meeting between two profoundly influential figures who have left an everlasting imprint on caste politics in India: B R Ambedkar and M K Gandhi. Despite their many differences, they both envisioned an India free of hierarchies: A pledge, nearly a century later, India has redeemed only very partially. It is nobody’s case that the census can undo historic wrongs or upend entrenched hierarchies. But, if the High Court wills and the census resumes, Bihar could move, if only slightly, in the direction of more equitable polity, laying the foundation for similar exercises across the country.

Sharan is assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park and author of Last Among Equals. Swaroop is a lawyer practising in Chennai


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