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Census Not in Sight but Bihar & Odisha Caste Surveys Open Up New Possibilities

Activists from social justice movements have long demanded that the census should collect caste-wise data.

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India is witnessing an interesting turn of events this year as far as population census is concerned. Population census is a Union subject but as the country's decennial census, which was supposed to be conducted in 2021, has got inordinately delayed, states like Bihar and Odisha have stepped forward to carry out their own census exercises.

The Government of India has been conducting a decennial census continuously since 1951 as per the provisions of the Census Act, 1948. It was due to conduct its latest census in 2021 but had to postpone it because of the onslaught of coronavirus pandemic. But even though we are now well past that calamitous event, the Narendra Modi-led government has shown no inclination to begin the exercise yet.

"The intent of the Government for conducting Census 2021 was notified in the Gazette of India on March 28, 2019. Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census 2021 and the related field activities have been postponed until further orders," Nityanand Rai, Minister of State for Home Affairs, told the Parliament in February.

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Rai has made this exact statement in the parliament on multiple occasions in the past.

And this is where the state governments have seen their opening. After the Bihar government took up a caste-wise survey in January, which is currently underway, now the Odisha government has announced that it will start population survey of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from April and complete it by July.

Both Bihar and Odisha have smartly labelled their exercises as a 'survey' and not 'census' so as not to encroach on the union government's jurisdiction.

States Have Historically Been More Proactive Towards the OBCs

It has been a long-standing demand of the social justice and Ambedkarite movements that the decennial census should collect caste-wise data.

Currently, the census enumerates the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Hence, we have an accurate picture of not just their population numbers but also their socio-economic condition and educational status.

At the time of independent India's first census, the third reserved category – the OBCs – did not exist at the national level. The Nehru government set up the first backward classes commission under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar in 1953. The second backward classes commission was set up in 1979 under the chairmanship of BP Mandal. But it was only in 1990 that the OBCs were given reservation in public sector jobs by the union government.

By this time, many state governments already had well-established reservation policies for the OBCs going back decades. The states have always been more proactive in heeding to the demands of the OBCs in comparison to the Centre.

The differing approaches of the Union government and state governments like Bihar and Odisha towards OBC enumeration makes this point clear once again.

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What is the Exact Population of the OBCs?

OBC leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Gopinath Munde had vociferously raised the issue of OBC enumeration in the parliament around the time of the 2011 census. At the time, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by Manmohan Singh, had partially relented and had carried out a separate Socio Economic Caste Census. However, the government had refused to make the caste-related data from this exercise public.

The last time a comprehensive caste enumeration was done, was in 1931.

When the Mandal Commission wrote its report in 1979-80, it relied on the 1931 census data to estimate the OBC population and came up with the number of 52%. That report itself is now more than four decades old but the magic number of 52%, which was a guesstimate based on the 1931 census, gets thrown around whenever the OBC population is discussed.

The Union government gives 27% reservation to the OBCs in public sector jobs and higher educational institutions as per the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. It gave constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes in 2018 through the 102nd Constitution Amendment. State governments have their own reservation policies, commissions, and myriad schemes for the OBCs. However, all of this governmental focus lacks the backing of comprehensive data.

This is not to say that policies have been framed without any supporting data. Both Union and state governments have set up multiple commissions since independence to look into the condition of the OBCs (two such commissions have already been mentioned above). Many government surveys and independent studies have also shown light on the socioeconomic precarity of the OBCs.

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But these kind of studies and surveys cannot be a match for the census. The kind of granular and comprehensive data, down to the village level that the census provides, makes it crucial for effective research and policymaking. And the census will also be able to answer that most vexed question – what is the exact population of the OBCs?

In this light, the 'surveys' by the Bihar and Odisha governments make for an interesting intervention. The Bihar survey goes one step further than the Odisha one as its mandate is to not just enumerate OBCs but all castes in the state.

This caste-wise data will have consequences for government policies, electoral politics and even the social sphere in Bihar.

1. Government Policies

Supreme Court, in the MR Balaji case, had stated that the total number of reserved seats cannot exceed 50% of the total number of seats available. This point was later reiterated in the Indra Sawhney judgment. But after the 103rd amendment to the Constitution, which created a new reserved category of Economically Weaker Sections (upheld by the apex court a few months ago), the total reservation given by the Union government is now almost 60%. This has led to calls for the OBC quota to be increased.

While the SCs and STs get reservation proportionate to their population, the OBC quota is only half (27%) of their estimated population (52%). This formula has also been followed by many states to a varying degree. Bihar, for example, currently has 30% quota for the OBCs (divided into two subcategories) and the total reservation is below the 50% mark, honouring the Indra Sawhney judgment. Odisha has earmarked only 11.25% seats for the OBCs, again to keep the total quota below 50%.

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Once the surveys in Bihar and Odisha make the exact population of the OBCs clear, the calls for proportionate reservation to them will likely get louder as there will be concrete data to back up their demand.

Also, since the census will show the socio-economic status of each caste, it could lead to adjustments in the OBC list. The survey may reveal that certain castes are backward on all socio-economic indicators but are currently in the unreserved category, or vice versa. The state assemblies could be pushed to add or delete castes from the OBC list upon these findings.

2. Electoral Politics

Caste arithmetic plays an important role in candidate selection of political parties and how campaign strategies are formulated. For example, in the recently held by-election to the Kasba Peth Assembly seat in Maharashtra, the Bharatiya Janata Party fielded an OBC candidate to fight against the Maha Vikas Aghadi's candidate, who was also from an OBC community. This apparently angered the Brahmin voters in the constituency who were expecting that the BJP would field someone from Mukta Tilak's family, whose death had caused the bypolls (Tilak was a Brahmin). The BJP candidate lost the election.

Political parties, through their own networks, tend to have a good idea about the caste composition of a specific constituency. The population estimates of each caste are available at the state level too. However, it's possible that these estimates are way off the mark as these numbers are mostly based on the 1931 census.

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The caste-wise census of Bihar will greatly fill this lacuna. After the precise numbers become available, they will be used by the parties in selection of candidates and devising campaign strategies. If the survey reveals that the population of a certain caste is much higher than estimated or vice versa, it may alter currently established equations.

3. Social Upheaval

The caste-wise data may give much-needed impetus to the OBC movement. Once the Bihar survey puts out concrete data on the status of the OBCs, the OBC leaders and activists will be able to make the case for their various demands with much more confidence since they will have the backing of precise data. Also, they will be able to organise the OBCs more effectively on the plank of shared backwardness.

The survey will also reveal the population numbers of Brahmins, Thakurs, Kayasthas and other dominant castes in Bihar, and may have ramifications for Hindutva politics as well. Since the leadership mantle of right-wing organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is in the hands of the upper castes, if their numbers turn out to be small and their hold over resources much outsized to their population, the unification of castes under the label 'Hindu' may become difficult to achieve for the right-wing forces. Social justice politics may once again become more appealing to the Bahujans than Hindutva politics.

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Topics:  odisha   Caste   OBC Quota 

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