Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Caste conundrum in India's Census

India's once-in-a-decade census is underway! Its a gargantuan task! And kudos to the officials in charge of conducting and delivering the same.

But there are a bunch of self seeking politicians -- nay that's tautological, I should only say politicians - of different colours who are right now fighting over whether a person's caste should be included alongwith the demographic data.

I see the argument at two levels! But first some background is in order.

Caste classifications are inherent in the Indian social psyche having been so for centuries. One's caste is the caste or grouping that one is born into. The caste system essentially classifies people into four castes with the lowest in status being relegated to all the menial jobs and also ostracized from mingling with the upper castes. Clearly, not done! But it undeniably exists to this day! This leads to untold hardships and misery being heaped on the lower castes who are variously described as 'dalits'  (or downtrodden) or ' Harijan' (God's people) - a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi in a bid to draw attention to the fact that God does not create people differently or discriminate based on an accident of birth.

Although some system of positive discrimination policy to benefit the lower castes had been in place before India's independence, successive post independence governments have, guided by a sense of righting years of wrong,  been pursuing a formal policy of positive discrimination by ensuring caste based reservations in Government Schools, Institutions of higher learning as well as jobs and promotions. These reservations were based on the approximate proportion of the 'backward' castes in the Indian population as per the Census. While meant to uplift the downtrodden, such a policy has contributed to perverse incentives for every caste group to fight to be included in the list of 'backward' castes and therefore benefit from the positive discrimination policies. Alternatively those that could not prove their years of discrimination, just used the strength of their numbers to ensure that the ambit of the Reservations policies was widened to ensure a piece of the reservation cake! Thus the caste system instead of  being erased from the psyche of the people actually got more entrenched.

Having got the background in context, let me explain my two levels of the argument.

The high-moral ground argument against inclusion of caste information in the current census, is apparently aimed at sending out the 'noble' message that the government wants to move on and and leave the baggage of the past behind us. It also seems to send out the message that (maybe apart from our gender) there is really no difference between one Indian and another. Accordingly, being Indian is both our nationality and our caste. But this begs the question, what then will be the basis for a review of the positive discrimination (Reservations) policy, which is a vital element of our social and economic planning. This argument appears to me, to be a case of 'living in denial' as it appears to ignore caste based differences at one level while pursuing the same caste based differentiation at a plethora of other levels! Clearly, no government can function with such anomalies as well as lack of a key demographic data element!

The second level of the argument is the more practical argument for inclusion of caste information. Wherever we go in society today, among the first questions that is asked or silently sought is our caste. Some examples. Try approaching a landlord for renting his house (mainly in the smaller cities/villages) and he will either ask you your caste outright or try to guess the same from your surname. Go for school admission in a government or government aided school and one's caste is a key demographic data required, because that is one of the parameters of the admission decision.  One's caste is almost as ubiquitous as one's gender!

I whole-heartedly support the high-moral-ground argument. Clearly there is merit in this course of action but only after we address some ground realities! It is indeed easy to erase the caste column from the census data form. But what we need to first aim for and achieve is the harder task of getting rid of the Caste classification that is written in invisible ink into the destinies of so many of us Indians.

Let's therefore be practical and collect caste information now. We need it guide our socio economic development plans and policies!