Losing Count

The discredited excuses for dodging a caste census

A census enumerator at work in Delhi in 2011. By the 2031 census, it will be a century since the country had up-to-date figures on its caste composition. Manish Swarup / AP Photo
Elections 2024
31 October, 2021

The Narendra Modi government released the preliminary results of the 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census in 2015. Its findings were grim: more than nine of every ten rural households had a monthly income below ten thousand rupees; almost two in five were landless and depended on manual labour for sustenance; fewer than one in twenty qualified to pay income tax. Even these numbers likely downplayed reality. Several economists and demographers criticised the SECC for undercounting the poor, leaving millions of deprived people ineligible for targeted welfare schemes. But this was only part of the problem. The SECC had fulfilled only part of its mandate—the caste data it collected was never released.

This September, the government insisted in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court that it would neither release the 2011 figures nor repeat the exercise of enumerating castes in the future. This came in reply to the Maharashtra government, which had asked the court to order the central government to release the SECC data so that it could implement reservations for the Other Backward Classes. Some of the government’s own allies—not to mention its opponents—have backed the demand for a more comprehensive enumeration of castes in the census, but Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party have not been swayed. With the pandemic-delayed 2021 census already overdue, the country looks set for another decade without up-to-date figures on its caste composition. By the time of the 2031 census, it will be a full century since India had them.

According to the affidavit, “it is apparent that the caste enumeration in SECC 2011 was fraught with mistakes and inaccuracies.” True, the SECC had numerous deficiencies, but this argument must be read in comparison to the Modi government’s previous position on the 2011 data. In 2016, the home ministry told a parliamentary committee that “the data has been examined and 98.87% data on individuals’ caste and religion is error free.” Once the remaining errors were resolved, it added, the data could be released. The timing of the two clashing pronouncements invites a damning explanation: in 2016, faced with long-standing demands to enumerate the backward classes and fearful of losing their votes, the government used the promise of the SECC data to defuse the pressure and stall for time. Now, it can no longer hide that it was long aware of the problems with the SECC but took no steps to plan an improved caste census in 2021. Moreover, the government has suggested that the technical shortcomings of the SECC are insurmountable, and that it is not able to conduct an improved caste census. This, again, is trickery. Many of the challenges of a caste census have earlier been thoroughly debated, and feasible solutions suggested, for anyone who cares to listen.

The real cause of the government’s misgivings is not technical but political. To guide debate and policy on caste-based representation and reservations in public institutions, India continues to rely on outdated figures from the colonial-era 1931 census, the last to make a comprehensive count of caste demographics. Those at the top of the caste hierarchy—with a meagre share of the total population yet overwhelmingly dominant in terms of education, wealth, influence and power—have reason to fear that an updated count will remind the rest of just how badly they have fared and galvanise demands for a representative distribution of the privileges hoarded by the elite. The large majority of the rest fall under the backward classes, which is why they have been shouting the loudest for a caste census to be done. The affidavit and the long, sordid saga of the caste-census-that-wasn’t—spanning multiple governments and featuring political opportunism, official incompetence and institutional apathy—reveals the hypocrisy of the elite-caste establishment. There are no impossible hurdles to the caste census. All that is lacking is official will.