‘Speculative figures promote dangerous casteism’
Professor Amitabh Kundu says that the last time we had a caste census was almost a century ago and it’s high time the government based its programmes and quotas on recent robust and comparable data
Professor Amitabh Kundu chaired the Post Sachar Evaluation Committee. The committee was set up in August 2013 by then prime minister Manmohan Singh to evaluate the implementation of both the Sachar Committee’s recommendations to improve the socio-economic and educational status of the Muslim community and the Prime Minister’s New 15-Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities. In an e-mail interview with Abhay Kumar, Prof Kundu argues that a caste census would provide policymakers with the disaggregated data about caste, helping them to work towards the goal of inclusive growth. Excerpts:
What was the background against which the caste census was undertaken? What was the need for it?
The disaggregation of population by caste and religious group is extremely important for the successful implementation of many of the government’s programmes. I do not think that the country is yet ready to discard the targeted programmes, because the budgetary requirements for (unnecessary) universal coverage would be astronomical. The need for such disaggregated information has been recognized by most policymakers and practitioners, because after 1930, all we have on castes are speculative figures, including those discussed in the context of the Mandal Commission. National Sample Survey (NSS) figures for OBCs vary in different rounds of survey due to unresolved definitional issues. I believe it is time we revisited the allocation of funds and quotas under different programmes and ensured that they are based on recent figures that are robust and comparable, at least cross-sectionally.
The critics of caste-census argue that it would promote “casteism” in society. Do you agree with this view?
It is better to have informed debate than to sweep the issues under the carpet. A discussion and debate based on speculative figures would promote “dangerous casteism”.
Instead of a caste census, it is a caste survey that was undertaken. How accurate would be the results of the caste survey? Do you consider caste survey a good substitute for caste census?
Combining collection of caste data with the gathering of information for identifying the deprived population, based on a seven-dimensional concept of poverty, has resulted in over-reporting of deprivation and vulnerability across the board in the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC). Income data has been collected in a cavalier manner. Even the reported illiteracy figures are on the higher side. A census or a survey conducted with a definite goal of identifying beneficiaries for a set of programmes would inevitably have this bias. I only hope that this has not contaminated the basic data on population by caste. I had argued in my writings for not combining collection of the caste data with the population census, because I was apprehensive that the inclusion of the caste question would result in deliberate misreporting on various socio-economic parameters and make the data temporally non-comparable. I had also argued that instead of the ministries of rural and urban development conducting such surveys, the National Sample Survey Office should do the survey through a special round using a fairly large sample. The identification of beneficiaries should be done separately.
The reliability of the caste (and also other) data in SECC must now be checked through cross-tabulation of the information at a disaggregative level by various parameters. Since the caste data reported by the households is verified at the gram sabha and panchayat level, the data may have adequate robustness to be usable. Furthermore, several million complaints on this have been entertained and resolved. I am therefore not willing to dismiss the caste data without examining it thoroughly. It appears to be at least the beginning of a process that will hopefully give us reliable socio-economic estimates by caste and religious group, if not now, in a few years.
Political scientist Prof Yogendra Yadav recently said on a TV programme that releasing of the caste-census requires four to five years because it is a complicated exercise. Do you agree with Prof Yadav’s views?
I am given to understand that only a small proportion of the complaints received on the data remain to be resolved. I am not aware of any statistical complication that can delay the bringing of the data into the policy domain. However, the socio-economic data from this census is comparable with those obtained from other official sources.
Do you think publishing the caste-census data would help policymakers improve the condition of the marginalized?
If the inclusive-growth agenda of the government is dependent on targeted programmes and not on a change in the strategy of macro-economic development, allocations must be based on realistic figures. Also, institutional and legal provisions would have to be made to ensure that benefits reach the targeted groups. The government cannot first give subsidies to all and then make a moral appeal to the upper- and middle-class households to give them up. Such appeals can work when the annual amount involved is small but not when that is substantial. My naive argument is that given there is political will, better information would result in better designing of the programmes/missions and better outcomes.
You have significantly contributed to the study of urbanization. How do you respond to the views that caste is disappearing from urban spaces?
My studies based on limited data on caste show that indeed urbanization reduces caste-based discrimination. In the metropolitan (million-plus) cities for which we have more reliable estimates on socio-economic parameters from the NSSO, caste-based discrimination is certainly less than in other urban centres and rural areas and is declining faster than in the rest of the country.
It has almost been a year since the Post Sachar Evaluation Committee under your chairmanship submitted its report to the government. Would you agree with the perception that the government does not seem to be enthusiastic about taking action based on the recommendations of the committee?
Not only has there not been any formal response from the government, I am sad and disappointed that even the political parties (except one or two) have not taken serious note of the analysis in the report and its recommendations. Questions have been raised in the Parliament thanks to the media reporting, but no serious debate has taken place on the critical areas of concern identified in the report. Importantly, Diversity Index Committee Report, chaired by me, which made a case for bringing all organizations and companies, including those in private sector, under an incentive system linked to diversity in the composition of their workforce and beneficiaries, was not considered seriously by the UPA government a few years ago.
While you have emphatically argued in favour of extending SC status to Dalit Muslims and Christians in your recommendation, the political establishment of the country continues to ignore this issue. Do you agree with the view that depriving Dalit Muslims and Christians of their legitimate right to SC status violates the India’s secular ethos?
I do. And so does the committee.
(First published in Forward Press (print edition), September 2015, published online December 16, 2015.