A continuous and unabated push towards including caste in the forthcoming census enumeration has finally ended with the Union government position to the Supreme Court stating that it has decided as a matter of policy not to enumerate caste-wise population other than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. That a decadal exercise, which began 150 years ago, has faced a discontinuation with the pandemic is damaging enough, which will require reconstruction for the year 2021. We are also not sure how the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, who could not conduct the census on time, will be able to add any other additional questions including enumeration of caste. The Election Commission did its job in conducting elections during Covid-19.
The census, the primary source of population data with all its distinct virtues of complete enumeration and levels of disaggregation to the lowest possible administrative unit, has seen gradual improvement in the quality of its content over time. Such improvement in quality has been possible with progress in the technology of data collection on the one hand and computerised validation on the other. In the midst of this uncertain environment of conducting a census that is unavoidable, imposing the collection of caste information may dilute the exercise at the very least and send wrong signals regarding its purpose. Considering the urgency of this exercise, there need to be sincere efforts towards putting systems in place to conduct the population enumeration at the earliest and providing an update of India’s population dynamics in comparable terms to be read against the past. The absence of population enumeration and its discontinuation can have implications for gauging the evolving changes as well as its prospects.
In the absence of the decadal census being held, the only alternative is to rely on population projections produced by the Registrar General which, at best, offer some tentative clues towards the age-sex composition of the population under varying sets of assumptions. Besides this projected count of population and age composition, more detailed information — on households, assets, marital status, education, migration etc since the last census of 2011 — will perhaps remain unknown. While many survey based inquiries are enlightening on the drastic transformation in population composition, their distribution across regions and among households, it is near impossible to reach a confirmation on such transformations.
A decade of rapid fertility declines and rising mobility needs serious assessment in terms of its impact on the population dynamics. In the absence of any clue regarding population, together with a pandemic with its devastating course of fatalities, the need for a population enumeration is all the more urgent. Estimated and projected numbers can serve as approximations to the extent of the assumptions being realistic and accurate. A 14th five-year plan being in the offing makes it a crucial year to have the real numbers towards making the planning exercise effective.
The distinct visible features of population transition in terms of the growing count and share of the elderly population alongside the declining share of the child population calls for differential strategies towards human resource building. On the one hand, preparing a human capital of quality and adaptability to the emerging labour market is the need of the hour, and at the same time, mainstreaming the elderly into renewed economic activities to avoid pessimism towards their rising count, becomes quite pertinent.
An attribute like caste being obtained in a census exercise makes matters complex on multiple grounds. While reporting on caste in a caste-ridden society may well be inaccurate on one hand, the numerical count of caste in India is perhaps the most difficult to obtain and to make use of in any analytic categories on the other. Given the differences in caste hierarchies across various regions of the country, a comparative reading alongwith generating a common hierarchy may be a challenge. Further, caste linked deprivation or adversity may not be as common as occupation linked predicaments, which become easier to compare across states/regions. An intimate and personalised attribute like caste may have its differential exposition between urban and rural residents. Urban residents’ need for anonymity can always bias the reporting on caste. Above all, recognition and adherence to caste identity is to a large extent shaped by progressive ideals, cosmopolitanism and education, which has its own regional divide in the country between the north and the south.
With such complexities associated with divulging caste identity, one cannot be sure of its accuracy in reporting on the one hand and the possible bias linked to other attributes on the other. The attributes obtained in the census like age, sex, residence, occupation and religion in themselves have not received adequate exploration to add to the understanding of differential population dynamics. Considering caste with its wide-ranging count as another fresh attribute may not be of worth as neither will it offer sensible outcome differences nor facilitate identification for intervention. In fact, attributes like caste and religion that are not modifiable should be less important compared to modifiable attributes like education, occupation and other endowment linked attributes. Hence, the moral lies in rising above ascribed attributes in defining outcomes to that of achieved ones. Such an approach has a dual advantage of gauging distribution across attributes as well as their response to outcomes.
In sum, the census enumeration should be a priority and the proposed digital enumeration should become more effective in generating required data of quality and accuracy. The upcoming census is certain to reveal interesting realities of population dynamics that go beyond the narrow and regressive outlook of the caste count to help gauge the transformation in human capital.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2021 under the title ‘Capability, not caste’. S Irudaya Rajan is chairman, The International Institute of Migration and Development, Kerala. U S Mishra is professor, Centre for Development Studies, Kerala