The socio-economic and caste census (SECC) 2011 paints a picture of rural India weighed down by landlessness and lack of non-farm jobs. More than 60 per cent of the 17.91 crore rural households covered under the census qualified as deprived on 14 parameters. This is a set of people who do not own a two-wheeler or a refrigerator, and whose monthly income is less than Rs 10,000. About 30 per cent of them list themselves as cultivators and manual casual labour is the primary source of income for 51.14 per cent of households. Across the country, 56 per cent of households don’t own any land. Just about 14 per cent have non-farm jobs, with the government, public or private sector. The statistics are even more depressing for SC and ST households: despite decades of affirmative action, only 3.96 per cent of rural SC households and 4.38 per cent of ST households are employed in government. This drops to 2.42 per cent for SCs and 1.48 per cent for tribals in the private sector.
Yet, there are signs of mobility and aspiration, evident in the acquisition of goods and tools that help rural households to link up with the urban economy. Mobile phones and motorbikes are preferred possessions in many households, even among those that are landless. For instance, 17.43 per cent of all rural households own two-wheelers and in Punjab, the figure is as high as 41 per cent. Mobile phones are available with 68 per cent of all rural households, including 66 per cent of Dalit homes.
A complete picture of the countryside will be available only when the government releases caste data. Caste is central not just to politics in rural India but also to its economy. It remains the single most powerful institution that mediates power relations in the villages, and thereby the distribution and management of resources. It is inexplicable why the government is shy of putting out this information in the public domain, since politicians and policymakers have for long recognised caste as an important socio-economic category. Indeed, the country’s affirmative action policies are caste-centric, and rightly so. Caste data could provide further insights about the rural economy and the working of the affirmative action programme. Instruments to alleviate deprivation could be designed or fine-tuned accordingly.