There needs to be closer engagement between all stakeholders of the Census and the Socio-Economic and Caste Census
Enumerating, describing and understanding the population of a society and what people have access to, and what they are excluded from, is important not only for social scientists but also for policy practitioners and the government.
In this regard, the Census of India, one of the largest exercises of its kind, enumerates and collects demographic and socio-economic information on the Indian population. However, no data exists in a vacuum. It has its own history, context and purpose.
About the Census
The synchronous decennial Census going back to the colonial exercise of 1881 has evolved over time and has been used by the government, policy makers, academics, and others to capture the Indian population, its access to resources, and to map social change.
However, as early as the 1940s, W.W.M. Yeatts, Census Commissioner for India for the 1941 Census, had pointed out that, “the census is a large, immensely powerful, but blunt instrument unsuited for specialised enquiry”.
This point has also surfaced in later critiques offered by scholars who consider the Census as both a data collection effort and a technique of governance, but not quite useful enough for a detailed and comprehensive understanding of a complex society.
As historian and anthropologist Bernard Cohn had demonstrated, the Census may in fact produce an imagination of society, which suggests the epistemological complexities involved.
While the usefulness of the Census cannot be disregarded, for instance with regard to the delimitation exercise, there is a lack of depth where some issues are concerned. In this context, the discussion around caste and its enumeration have been controversial. Since Independence, aggregated Census data on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on certain parameters such as education have been collected.
With demands to conduct a full-scale caste census gaining traction over time, some have seen the inclusion of broader caste information as a necessity to capture contemporary Indian society and to understand and remedy inequalities, while others believe that this large administrative exercise of capturing caste and its complexities is not only difficult, but also socially untenable.
Following decades of debate, the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was conducted in 2011 and took a few years to complete; this was a distinct exercise from the Census of 2011. The SECC, which collected the first figures on caste in Census operations since 1931, is the largest exercise of the enumeration of caste. It has the potential to allow for a mapping of inequalities at a broader level.
The main concerns
It would be disingenuous to ignore the emotive element of caste and the political and social repercussions of a caste census. There have been concerns that counting caste may help solidify or harden identities, or that caste may be context-specific, and thus difficult to measure. These discussions along with various counterarguments are not new.
Commenting on the 1941 Census, Census Commissioner Yeatts observed that, “Thanks to the acute interest in community figures, practically all communities this time were census-conscious and took pains to see that their houses were in the list and that they themselves were counted.” In discussions around caste, scholars such as Nicholas Dirks and Cohn have demonstrated that the Census had the effect of marking out caste and community in the forms we see today.
The other concern is whether an institution such as caste can even be captured completely by the Census. Questions remain on whether the SECC is able to cover the effects of caste as an aspect of Indian social structure in everyday life, or at least to illuminate our understanding of its impact at varying scales — from the local, to the regional and to the national scale. Can the SECC take into account the nuances that shape caste and simultaneously the ways in which caste shapes everyday life in India?
The Census and the SECC have different purposes. Since the Census falls under the Census Act of 1948, all data are considered confidential, whereas according to the SECC website, “all the personal information given in the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) is open for use by Government departments to grant and/or restrict benefits to households”.
The Census thus provides a portrait of the Indian population, while the SECC is a tool to identify beneficiaries of state support. This difference is significant since it influences not only the methods of collection but also the use and potential for misuse of data.
A road map
What is needed then is a discussion on the caste data that already exists, how it has been used and understood by the government and its various departments to grant or withdraw benefits, and also its utility for the important academic exercise of mapping social inequalities and social change.
Linking and syncing aggregated Census data to other large datasets such as the National Sample Surveys or the National Family Health Surveys that cover issues that the Census exercises do not, such as maternal health, would be significant for a more comprehensive analysis, enabling the utilisation of the large body of data that already exists.
This linking of the Census with the National Sample Survey data has been suggested in the past by scholars such as Mamta Murthi and colleagues. Statisticians such as Atanu Biswas point out that Census operations across the world are going through significant changes, employing methods that are precise, faster and cost effective, involving coordination between different data sources.
Care must however be taken to ensure that digital alternatives and linking of data sources involving Census operations are inclusive and non-discriminatory, especially given the sensitive nature of the data being collected.
Time lag and planning
Apart from themes specific to enumerating caste, there are other issues that the Census and the SECC in particular face. The first relates to the time lag between each Census, and the second to the delay in the release of data.
The first of these is inherent in the way the Census exercises are planned. The second, however, also has important repercussions to understanding social change since data may remain un-released or released only in parts. Nearly a decade after the SECC for instance, a sizeable amount of data remains unreleased.
While the Census authorities present documents on methodology as part of a policy of transparency, there needs to be a closer and continuous engagement between functionaries of the Census and SECC, along with academics and other stakeholders concerned, since the Census and the SECC are projects of governance as well as of academic interest.
Before another SECC is conducted, a stocktaking of the previous exercise, of what has been learnt from it, and what changes are necessary, beyond changing exclusionary criteria for beneficiaries of state support, are crucial to enable the Census to facilitate effective policy work and academic reflection. Concerns about methodology, relevance, rigour, dissemination, transparency and privacy need to be taken seriously if this exercise is to do what it was set up to do.