Five Questions the New ‘Caste’ Census Raises But Doesn’t Answer

The new census doesn’t give us what we really need to know such as socio-economic data on social groups and urban deprivation; but what it tells doesn’t augur well for India’s growth as a superpower

Photo: Gates foundation, CC 2.0.

Photo: Gates foundation, CC 2.0.

For researchers and activists working on the problem of persistent poverty in India, the release of the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) results for rural India has turned out to be a damp squib. There isn’t much that could be described as new.  This is mainly because the tables relate to three categories namely, Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Others.  Most socioeconomic statistical survey reports, including the population census reports, publish data for SCs and STs separately. Even in the case of ‘Others’, one could get the figure from the population census by deducting SC and ST figures from the total. In neither case, do we know how the ‘Others’ are disaggregated by caste, at least not yet.

However, even these three-fold results should come as a shock when the media has just reported that India has added another trillion dollars to its national income – of course without counting the black economy – during the last seven years, thus becoming a two-trillion dollar economy.  There is also the added news that the per capita income of Indians has exceeded Rs. 1 lakh.  But this average hides the enormous inequality and some of it has come through these SECC rural tables like the tip of an iceberg.

Data needed on well-defined social groups

What is relevant and important from the point of a socially inclusive development strategy, if there is anything like that now, is the need for data on well-defined social groups. I say ‘well defined’ because we all know there are thousands of caste groups, not to speak of innumerable sub-groups.  So there is need for some kind of aggregation.  What I would recommend is a five-fold category composed of SC, ST, Muslim, OBC and Others.  This is what a few other research scholars and I have done in our studies on inequality and poverty.  This is also the classification which the National Commission on Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS), in which I was a member, adopted in its major reports dealing with the condition of workers in general, and informal workers in particular, in the country.

The justification is that ST and SC are constitutionally mandated categories recognising their historical social and economic disadvantage. OBC has been an officially recognised category in many states for a long period, which the Government of India adopted with the acceptance of the Mandal Commission Report.  Muslim as a category has gained justification after the publication of the Sachar Committee Report, showing their generalied social and economic backwardness.  The category ‘Others’ is a residual one consisting of Hindu upper castes, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Zorastrians and a few others.  The wealth distribution data has clearly demonstrated that these groups are well above the other four groups of OBC, Muslim, SC and ST.

It would have been enormously informative and purposeful in formulating social and economic policy if some kind of categorization along these lines had been adopted and the results published.  It is the absence of decomposition of the ‘Others’ that leads to my first disappointment with the results.

No urban data 

The other deficiency is that the government chose to publish the SECC findings only for rural areas.  Had the urban data also been published, we would have been alarmed by the emerging urban-rural inequality in the country.  For example, the incidence of households with salaried income in rural India is 9.7 per cent.  My guess, based on indirect information on other indicators, tells me that the number of households with at least one salaried earner might be around 33-35 per cent in urban India. This is only one aspect of rural-urban inequality.  The work that I did on emerging inequality in my recent book, Interrogating Inclusive Growth: Poverty and Inequality in India, showed that the poor and vulnerable population (and households) comprised 50 per cent of urban India in 2010, whereas they made up 77 per cent in rural India.  ‘Poor and Vulnerable’ was defined as those with per capita consumption expenditure of twice the official poverty line (pre-Tendulkar revision). This was close to the international poverty line of two PPP dollars per capita per day.

But the salaried households among SCs are only 7.3 per cent and among STs just 6.4 per cent.  Here again, one must remember that SCs and STs are mostly employed as lower-level employees even in salaried jobs that could make a big difference in income, not to speak of social status.

There is no consumption expenditure data in the published tables. There is also no income data even as ‘revealed information,’ as in the case of other questions.  What is available is the income slab of the main earner.  I wonder why such details have been given prominence when they can hardly be used for any meaningful policy formulation, let alone understanding the poverty situation.  But I can’t but help point to an interesting statistic, that 74.5 per cent of rural households had reported a monthly income in 2011 of less than five thousand rupees for its main earner.  My own estimate of ‘poor and vulnerable’ households in rural India, in Interrogating Inclusive Growth, was a close 77 per cent in 2010!

Incomplete job on employment

Employment is an important indicator for assessing, even if indirectly, income status.  But the SECC gives us very little useful information is given on this. There is no data on the average number of earners in a household, their status as casual, self-employed or regular, and corresponding earnings.  There is no doubt that an overwhelming proportion of workers are either in the unorganized (informal) sector or informally employed (no job or social security) in the organized (formal) sector.  Otherwise, the proportion of salaried households would not be less than 10 per cent.

But the fact that 38 per cent of landless households depend mainly on casual work does not mean that the casually employed are 38 per cent because many rural households combine casual work with self employment (as in their tiny plots of land, or some home based work).  But there is no denying that SC households are most vulnerable in this regard with 55 per cent depending on casual work.  Given the absence of wage data as well as average days of employment in a month, one cannot infer their income.  But the vast amount of literature based on quantitative and qualitative surveys tells us about the low level of wages – in most cases starvation wages – prevailing in the country.

There is also wage discrimination apart from job discrimination. So an SC household usually ends up with a lower wage and hence income than his/her counterpart from the ‘socially advantaged’ groups.

Not literates, its the ‘low educated’ who count

Let me also point out a scenario that has implications for the future, something that could well aggravate the existing social inequality. The SECC reports that close to 36 per cent of rural Indians are illiterate, and another 14 per cent have less than primary level of education. Given the fact that a couple of years of schooling hardly makes any difference to an adult in terms of having even some functional literacy, what we have is half of rural India without any effective literacy.  Add to this, those with just primary education but who have not reached the middle level, which is close to 18 per cent.  In this age of digital information management and processing, one wonders what even these primary level people would be able to do.

With more than two-thirds of India having missed the ‘education bus’, it would be interesting to see how an emerging India can ’emerge’, let alone attain superpower status.

Can we think of how they will negotiate a banking or post office transaction, not to speak of writing an application for a certificate of land possession or housing assistance? So we have a ‘low educated’ rural population comprising 68 per cent of the total in the second decade of the 21st century. With more than two-thirds of India having missed the ‘education bus’, it would be interesting to see how an emerging India can ’emerge’, let alone attain superpower status.

Let there be no doubt that all-India statistics hardly mean anything in terms of reality because they hide enormous regional inequality. In the case of education, this holds with less sharpness. Kerala shines only in comparison with 11.38 per cent illiteracy but 36 per cent of its population is ‘low educated’ in the above sense.  There is some remarkable solidarity in a large geographically contiguous area where, taken together, three fourths of the rural population can be classified as ‘low educated (illiterate + less than primary + less than middle). This includes Bihar (79 per cent), UP (70 per cent), MP (76 per cent), Jharkhand (73 per cent), Chattisgarh (73 per cent) and Rajasthan (76 per cent).  Lest this be seen as only a ‘Hindi heartland’ phenomenon as many scholars have pointed out, they are in the good company of Gujarat which has 72 per cent of its rural population ‘low educated’.

Room for error on housing

The quality of housing and amenities ought to have been an important indicator for investigation, including access to such basic amenities as a private toilet. This has a great deal to do with human dignity, especially of women and the elderly. But I could not find this important indicator included in the published tables. One wonders whether the fact that half of Indian households have no private latrine has weighed in the decision to not use this as a deprivation indicator. Instead, an unacceptably low threshold has been set as a measure for housing deprivation i.e. one or less than one room with kuccha wall and roof.  In plain language, this means a household suffers from deprivation if it is shelterless or has a shelter that is more like a shack in a small space.  One room is defined in the population census as 4 sq. metres i.e. 43 sq.ft. This is less than half the size of a college hostel room for a family of five persons!

When the urban tables are published we will get another picture.  But what is evident is that rural-urban inequality as well as the regional inequality across states or even gender inequality are not the overwhelming inequality in this country.  It is the entrenched social inequality that has delegated the SC and ST to the bottom and elevated the Others (minus Muslims and OBC) to the top. What will dominate political discourse, however, is how the middle (OBC and Muslims) are faring, and on this, the SECC has not provided any answers.

KP Kannan is with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram

  • Vinay Tandon

    KP Kannan’s analysis is most illuminating. All India aggregated data or even at State level is good for writing general articles but quite useless to ‘understand’ what is happening to the people and on the ground. Such dis-aggregated data is either NA or hidden in bits and pieces in separate studies, which are almost inaccessible to ordinary but curious people like me. The example of our State of Education is particularly interesting. I fully agree that pre-primary and primary level schooled persons are actually illiterate. That states classify them as literates is just to show how much they have progressed.

    What is more alarming (and understandably not recognised or even talked about in ‘Studies’), is how many persons who are shown as literate are actually ‘functionally literate’? I have an interesting example from Himachal Pradesh (touted as the fastest moving state in terms of literacy – about 90% – and ‘education’). In rural Himachal simple tests on arithmetic and writing skills taken by matriculates, plus 2 and several graduates randomly (during training for doing village level surveys), showed that about 80% were unable to do class 3 or 4 level sums and many did not have a clue as to how to divide or what are percentages. Writing skills were dismal with most unable to write 5 or 6 lines coherently on say “My Village” (in Hindi). Apart from this shocking learning, the first question was, “How did these people pass matriculation in the first place?” Silence.

    During training of these literate persons, especially of women, it was discovered that many were unable to hold a pen properly or take notes even though ALL had ‘passed’ Middle School. It was then learnt that most of these women had passed Class 8 or failed Class 9 ten or fifteen years ago. Thereafter they got married, had children and were since engaged in household work. During this period nearly all of them had relapsed into illiteracy. There could be lakhs of such persons in rural Himachal today!

    If we add to this the further sliding down of outcomes due to caste inequalities, we have very very little to ‘celebrate’ about.

    Our great ‘demographic dividend’?