In 2011, while commissioning the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), the United Progressive Alliance government had claimed that it would ensure that every state government would be able to use custom-made indicators that would serve the purpose of identifying caste groups in need of affirmative action. However, this remains a distant dream with the current Modi government hiding vital information derived from the caste census behind a veil of ambiguity.
Many posit that doing so, while working on schemes of affirmative action for the benefit of deprived groups, can prove to be a strong force against parties seeking caste based political leverage. However, the question of what the government chooses to do with this data continues to remain unclear. The SECC does not provide us with the required information on the socio-economic status of individual social groups, with the data purely being arranged into the categories of ‘Scheduled Caste’, ‘Scheduled Tribes’ and ‘Others’. Who comprise the category of ‘Others’ is a grey area for research and analysis.
While Scheduled Castes and Tribes were already defined, the category of the largest minority, ‘Muslims’ became important as a distinct socio-economic category with the release of the Sachar Committee report. The report clearly showed their predominant social and economic backwardness. Since the Muslims are not part of the ‘others’, one can only assume that the remaining dominant groups, that is the Hindu upper castes, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians and a few others would comprise that category. It is, therefore, a source of ambiguity and uncertainty.
However, an argument for the reassessment of this system of analysis receives its strongest backing from the nature of the seven indicators for rural areas that were used during the census to assess deprivation:
1. Households with only one room, kuchha walls and kuchha roof.
2. No adult member between the ages of 16 and 59.
3. Female-headed households with no adult male member between 16 and 59.
4. Households with disabled member(s) and no able bodied adult member.
5. SC/ST households.
6. Households with no literate adult above 25 years.
7. Landless households deriving a major part of their income from manual casual labour.
In urban areas, it is a similar three-stage process to identify the urban poor – automatic exclusion, automatic inclusion and a scoring index. A family stands to be automatically excluded if it has either a four room house or possesses any one of these assets: a four wheeler, an air-conditioning set, or a laptop. They can also be excluded for owning any three of the following assets: fridge, a landline phone, a washing machine or a two-wheeler.
Indicator 3, showing female-headed households as under deprivation is a rather questionable point that is being made by the SECC. It may be noted that the work done by a woman involves longer hours than that of a man in rural areas and, therefore, cannot be disregarded owing to patriarchal mindsets.
Indicator 6 puts a low threshold for the appraisal of deprivation with the requirement merely of ‘literacy’. Data shows that 36% of the rural population is illiterate and almost 14% has received less than primary levels of education. Therefore, literacy cannot be seen as a proper indicator in a context where it is seen as a bare minimum that cannot guarantee occupational mobility and flexibility.
Indicator 7 brings up the question of self-employment and its importance to a rural household. While 38% of the landless are casually employed, one cannot deduce that they engage in casual work. The SECC fails to recognise self-employment as a source of casual labour which provides remuneration. While more than half of rural households own land, 40% was seen to be non-irrigated land. Only 4% own some kind of mechanised equipment while many more do not possess kisan credit cards. Possession of land, therefore, does not necessarily divorce one from the deprivation faced by the rural poor.
The SECC 2011 data released last year was labelled by many analysts as incomplete and raw. With final data of over half the districts still shrouded in mystery, most of the handwritten information remains illegible and hence, lost. The lack of information on consumption expenditure has also remained a major setback for the utilisation of this data. So what does the future hold for the outdated SECC?
In a recent interview, Backward Classes Commission Chairman K.L. Manjunath said, “I don’t want to say anything on the demand to consider the SECC data. We will make our own assessment. It requires a lot of study and scientific research to confirm the socio-economic backwardness of a community. The Commission will tour all the districts in the State to gather information.” This was in reference to the questionable Kapu reservation demand in Andhra Pradesh. A national census purely based on income slabs of groups as opposed to a consumption expenditure assessment is seen, therefore, as a considerable waste of time and effort.
The data produced by the SECC 2011 has not been perused by the government, leaving analysts perplexed about the use of such irrelevant data. One foresees tumultuous times ahead as opportunistic political giants who cannot be trusted with cattle fodder, now claim their right to make the caste census data public. While this data has been unsuccessful in delineating the rural and the urban poor, it is surely bound to cause a violent upheaval if bequeathed to avaricious hands that only seek power.