Bihar Caste Census: SC Refuses to Stay Release of Data, Says It Doesn't Violate Right to Privacy

As the data collection exercise was already completed on August 6, the petitioners opposing the survey sought an order from the top court to stay the publication of data in the public domain.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has refused to stay the Bihar caste census and dismissed the petitioners’ reasoning that it violates a citizen’s fundamental right to privacy.

As the data collection exercise was already completed on August 6, the petitioners opposing the move sought an order from the top court to stay the release or uploading of the data in the public domain. However, the court declined their plea.

According to The Hindu, Justice Sanjiv Khanna observed, “How is the right to privacy affected when somebody is asked to give his caste or sub-caste? That individual data is not released to the public… What is released is the cumulative figures.”

However, senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, appearing for the NGO Youth for Equality, said that people could not be “compelled to reveal their caste” in the name of the survey.

To this, Justice Khanna responded, saying, “Your caste is known to your neighbours…. Which of the 17 questions asked in the survey amounts to a violation of privacy?”

Vaidyanathan then argued that the only thing voluntary among the list of questions on caste, religion, and personal income was Aadhar information and nothing else. He sought to convey that disclosing one’s caste was made compulsory under the survey, adding it was not “today’s thinking”.

Justice Khanna denied that there was an element of compulsion. “There is no penalty involved if a person chooses not to fill this up,” he said, in support of the survey.

The petitioner’s lawyer also questioned that the survey had been undertaken on the basis of a mere executive order, passed on June 6 last year, but not with statutory backing. According to him, a survey such as this – which impinged on a fundamental right of privacy – should have a statutory basis and an administrative order from the political executive would not suffice.

“A fundamental right cannot be infringed upon on the basis of an administrative order,” he argued.

Bihar government’s counsel, Shyam Divan, however, dismissed the arguments of the petitioners, calling them “completely motivated”. He also pointed out that the survey was already concluded, on August 6.

“This is a social survey. The information got from the exercise would be analysed,” Divan said. He also went on to add that information collected from the survey would help the Bihar government to better its delivery of welfare programmes. He assured that individual data would be protected.

The court also rejected the plea of another petitioner who also sought a stay on the uploading/disclosing data in the public domain. “We will not stay anything till we are prima facie convinced there is a need for that… The State has already a High Court judgment in its favour. The exercise is complete. The data will be available in public,” Justice Khanna said.

The court also dismissed the argument of the petitioners that the Bihar government is not empowered to carry out such a survey, for the authority to conduct a census rests only with the Union government.

The Nitish Kumar government launched a caste census in Bihar in January this year, stating that detailed information on the socio-economic conditions of the people in the state would help create better government policy to aid disadvantaged groups. The entire exercise was supposed to have been completed by May. However, the legal challenges meant the government was unable to complete the exercise.

The caste census has become a major political concern in recent months, with opposition parties exerting pressure on the Union government to do the exercise on a national level.