Bhubaneswar: The opposition has accused the Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha of opportunism after a survey to assess the socioeconomic status of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) began earlier this week. Odisha is the second state in the country, after Bihar, to undertake such an exercise but opposition parties have questioned the intent of the Patnaik government, saying the move is intended to win the support of the OBCs ahead of the 2024 assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
“Look at the timing of the survey. All these years they [the Patnaik government] have been shedding crocodile tears for the OBCs. Now with the elections barely a year away, they have launched this exercise to create an impression that they actually care for this class. The ruling party is trying to play the caste card but they will not succeed. People will see through their game,” said former Congress MLA Lalatendu Mohapatra.
Another Congress leader, former Union minister Srikant Jena, who has been championing the cause of other backward castes for a long time, was also critical of the government. “Let the government first grant the OBCs their constitutional rights. They are doing all this with an eye on the elections. They want to create an impression that they care for the OBCs,” Jena told a local TV channel.
The survey began on May 1 and will continue until May 27. It is being conducted by the Odisha State Commission for Backward Classes in both online and offline modes and will cover OBCs residing in 314 blocks and 114 urban local body (ULB) areas of the state. It will survey a range of indicators of backwardness, including educational qualification, occupation, livelihood sources, access to hospitals and schools and the kind of house [kutcha or pucca] a person lives in.
The Commission has opened centres in all anganwadi kendras and even public distribution system (PDS) outlets where filled-up survey forms can be sumitted. The families under survey would have to provide details of their ration cards, Aadhaar cards or voter ID cards. The enumeration will cover OBCs belonging to 208 castes, sub-castes and communities.
OBCs constitute a majority of population
One important reason for the survey triggering a political furore is that OBCs account for 54% of Odisha’s population and are therefore an important constituency. “Unlike in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, politics in Odisha has never been dominated by the caste factor. But there is no denying the political clout of the OBCs and hence there will always be attempts to cultivate them as a vote bank,” said Shashi Kant Mishra, a political analyst.
The Odisha minister for the welfare of SC, ST, minorities and Backward Classes Jagannath Saraka, however, dismissed the charge of the Naveen Patnaik government playing politics over the issue. “The opposition may say anything but there is no politics involved in this. This is an honest attempt to assess the socio-economic status of the OBCs,” he asserted while calling upon all OBC community members to cooperate and take part in the survey.
As it is, no formal census – including the caste details of the population – has been carried out in the state since 1931. Hence, the state lacks reliable data on OBCs, for whom there is an 11.25% reservation in government jobs and educational institutes, which is completely disproportionate to their population. The government has not been able to raise this quota because of the 50% ceiling on reservations imposed by the Supreme Court.
The Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has been demanding the removal of the 50% cap on reservation for quite some time. In 2021, the party reiterated this demand along with the demand for a caste-based census. “We want the cap to go so that we can provide 27% reservation to OBCs, who constitute the largest chunk of the state’s population. We have now launched a survey to collect authentic data on OBCs. This is not about politics or elections. This is a welfare-related issue and must be seen in that light,” said a senior BJD leader who did not wish to be quoted.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik had himself approached the Union government demanding a socio-economic caste survey to be conducted simultaneously with the proposed general census in 2021. However, the Union government turned down the demand. Then the state government decided to conduct its own survey and the state assembly passed a unanimous resolution to amend the Odisha State Commission for Backward Classes Act 1993 to enable the government to undertake a survey on social and educational conditions of people belonging to backward classes.
However, opposition leaders are far from convinced about the government’s intentions behind the survey, which comes at a time when major parties in the state are busy preparing for the 2024 elections. “They had deliberately kept the OBCs backward all these years. Now, with elections approaching, they have suddenly become aware of the need to initiate measures for their welfare. How can you trust them?” asked senior Congress leader Suresh Kumar Routray.
The BJP’s Odisha OBC Morcha president Surath Biswal described the survey as a farce. “If they are serious they should move door to door, collecting data from OBC families,” said Biswal.
However, members of the OBC community have welcomed the survey. “Better late than never. They are finally doing what they should have done long back. Let’s hope the job is done honestly and members of our community get some long overdue benefits,” said Kailash Pradhan of Rourkela.