The government of India has just released data from the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011. It is perhaps the most ambitious exercise of this kind ever conducted in human history. The SECC 2011 has three parts: census of rural India, conducted by the Union ministry of rural development (MoRD), census of urban India, and the caste census. The data that has been released covers only the first component, rural India.
The formulation of the SECC was characterised by a long process of widespread consultation with experts and stakeholders and led to a fairly robust methodology, not flawless but certainly better than anything similar we have attempted in the past. Enumerators used 6.4 lakh handheld electronic devices in this paperless census. And there was a transparent data verification process. The decennial population census is governed by the Census Act, 1948, which has strict requirements of confidentiality. These do not apply to the SECC. And since one of its major aims is to determine entitlements for various government programmes, the data were subject to verification by the families themselves, as also by gram panchayats and gram sabhas. After the data were put up in public places, specific timelines were given for people to raise objections or make complaints, and for the concerned officials to address them. According to the MoRD, more than 1.2 crore households raised objections.
While the process was well conceived, there is some cause for concern on how well it was implemented. Uttar Pradesh, India’s most important state from the point of view of poverty elimination, hardly recorded any objections. Clearly, the robustness of the process was greater where grassroots democracy is stronger, in the form of sturdy gram panchayats and gram sabhas. But it suffered greatly where the voice of the people is weak and stifled, especially when they belong to the most disadvantaged sections. Take, for example, the number of manual scavengers, one of the darkest blots on India’s development experience. This appears to have been greatly underreported, especially in certain states that remain in insistent denial about the existence of the problem, which in reality refuses to go away, given deeply entrenched social prejudices. While the 2011 Census of India lists 2,15,885 dry latrines in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Manipur, the SECC reports a mere 653 manual scavengers in these states.
In spite of these limitations, however, the SECC gives us a fair picture of acute distress in rural India. Some facts are reconfirmed — that among all social groups, the Scheduled Tribes are the worst off, and that the eastern and central parts of India are the poorest. But there are also not-so-well-recognised facts and new insights. Nearly 50 per cent of the population is either illiterate or educated below the primary level. And around the same number (nine crore families) are so poor that they are forced to do unskilled manual labour. What is even more remarkable is that, of these, nearly four crore families are small and marginal farmers whose poverty compels them to work as manual labourers. The productivity of their lands has been so decimated that they work as labourers to make ends meet. This has major policy implications for the MGNREGA, which must focus on rebuilding the productivity of these lands and create a situation where small and marginal farmers can go back to farming and/ or allied livelihoods, and not become endlessly dependent on the MGNREGA.
The greatest strength of the SECC is the fact that it creates the possibility for us to get away from the poverty line as a criterion for government benefits. The terrible tragedy of the poverty line was that it was used to determine rights and entitlements based on the utterly flawed BPL (below poverty line) list of households. This list was always characterised by huge errors of inclusion and exclusion, where the powerful muscled their way in, elbowing out the truly deserving poor. The use of BPL cards was also a blunt instrument — anyone with the card would be entitled to all government benefits and anyone without it would be equally excluded. This problem arose because we did not recognise the multi-dimensional character of poverty.
The SECC data make it possible for us to move to the principle of “programme-specific indicators for programme-specific entitlements”. This is a clear recognition that poverty has many dimensions, each of which is to be tackled by different programmes, and the benefits of each programme will either be universal (as in the MGNREGA, health, primary education, sanitation, mid-day meals, etc) or based on data on specific features such as homelessness, disability and a host of other deprivations captured by the SECC, all of which are major constituents of poverty. These should be used to identify the people entitled to specific benefits. Thus, the homeless will be the beneficiaries of the Indira Awaas Yojana and the disabled will get disability pensions, irrespective of whether or not they have a BPL card. What the SECC helps us understand is that even if the figure of people below the consumption poverty line were to fall to zero, removing poverty in India will remain a challenge till every Indian has access to safe drinking water, sanitation, housing, nutrition, health and education.
The crucial question then is: How will the government use the SECC data? It is to be sincerely hoped that the SECC will not be used to arbitrarily reduce, for example, the number of people entitled to benefits under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Some policy analysts have suggested that since around 40 per cent of households fulfil at least one of the SECC’s 14 parameters of exclusion, they should all be excluded from the benefits of the NFSA. This would be a terrible mistake. Many states in India have shown that a universal public distribution system works the best. Even if exclusions are to be made, they could be done on the basis of the SECC’s more robust indicators of exclusion, such as income tax payers, large irrigated landowners, etc. Or by stipulating that only households satisfying two or more exclusion criteria would be excluded.
For, any database is only as good as the use we make of it.
The writer was member, Planning Commission, 2009-14.