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The case for a caste-wise census

S. Nagesh Kumar

It could go a long way in streamlining OBC reservation.

SUCCESSIVE ATTEMPTS by some States and by the Centre to revise the reservation policy for the Other Backward Classes have been struck down by courts citing the lack of reliable and scientific data on the present social, economic, and educational status of OBCs to justify the revision.

The Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Arijit Pasayat and Lokeshwar Singh Panta indirectly said as much when it stayed the law providing 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in higher educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) for 2007-08. It rejected outright the Government's argument that in the absence of caste data after 1931, the only alternative was to project the population proportion of socially and educationally backward classes and OBCs from the next best source — the census of 1931. "What may have been relevant in the 1931 census may have some relevance, but it cannot be the determinative factor," the judges said.

Justice Ratnavel Pandian in the Indra Sawhney case had noted that no caste-wise statistics had been collected after the 1931 census. He, however, upheld the constitutional validity of the 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in public services in 1992 on the ground that identification of classes by the Mandal Commission was based on realities prevailing in 1980 and not 1931.

Although the idea may not suit the political considerations of several parties, a caste-wise census could go a long way in streamlining OBC reservation. In Andhra Pradesh, representations are pending from at least 17 castes, apart from Muslims, for inclusion in the list of OBCs. Representations seeking removal of three castes from the list as they are no longer backward are also pending disposal. The Andhra Pradesh Backward Classes Commission is wary of touching these issues without current, accurate, and reliable data on their socio-economic-educational profiles.

With more castes seeking inclusion and the courts disallowing reservation beyond 50 per cent, revision of the list of OBCs based on a census becomes imperative. It would lend clarity to the contentious issue of keeping out the creamy layer among OBCs — such as children of IAS, IPS officers, MPs, MLAs, professionals, and other affluent sections — from the purview of reservation.

Many States have differed with the Rs.2.5-lakh annual income ceiling suggested by the Centre to keep out the creamy layer. They have adopted their own criteria to define this category. Andhra Pradesh suggested an annual income ceiling of Rs.4 lakh on the recommendations of a Group of Ministers but beat a hasty retreat in the face of opposition from OBCs. It then urged the Centre to scrap the very concept of creamy layer by amending the Constitution.

In the absence of a credible survey, Andhra Pradesh has been relying on data culled from four sources, all considered unreliable or outdated for implementing reservation. They are: (a) the caste-wise census of 1931; (b) the Mandal Commission report that, according to Justice Ratnavel Pandian, "culled out caste/community-wise population figures from the 1931 census records and then grouped them into broad caste-clusters and religions groups"; (c) the Socio-Educational Economic Survey of Castes & Communities of Andhra Pradesh (SEESCCAP); and (d) a multi-purpose household survey to enumerate persons eligible for ration cards but of little use since it merely categorised people into OCs and OBCs.

The SEESCCAP, though inconclusive in the end, was commissioned in 1994 to survey the entire population and compare the relative progress of various communities. Such a census could determine the actual percentage of the OBC population in Andhra Pradesh, assumed to be 52 per cent (again by projecting the 1931 census figures).

The survey was entrusted to T.V. Hanurav, Head, Stat-Math unit of the Indian Statistical Institute, following an agitation by four castes in East Godavari district for inclusion in the list of OBCs. The Backward Classes Commission had expressed inability to give recommendations on expanding the list of OBCs without proper data.

The Hanurav survey

A main sample of 65,713 households was taken and 8,020 households of randomly chosen elected bodies such as gram panchayats served as the auxiliary sample to study caste-wise distribution of political empowerment. Hanurav significantly observed in his report available with The Hindu that no comprehensive list of all castes and tribes was available beyond the lists of castes/tribes officially recognised as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and OBCs. He came across several caste names when the filled-in household schedules started pouring in.

In some cases, the same caste was known by different names in different parts of the State. Conversely, the same name denoted different castes in different places. Besides, the names of two entirely different castes could have the same suffix leading to investigators wrongly classifying the caste. For instance, Nayee Brahmins (barbers) and Viswa Brahmins (goldsmiths and carpenters) were mistaken for sub-castes of Brahmins. Koppula Velama, a backward community mainly found in Vizianagaram district, was wrongly construed to be a sub-caste of the Velamas, a forward community.

Finally, through a complex statistical formula, Hanurav's team developed an Index of Forwardness; it gave 40, 30, 20, and 10 per cent weightage to the indices of social, educational, economic, and political status. On its basis, Hanurav ranked 200-odd castes. Brahmins, Kannada Brahmins, and Tamil Brahmins took the top three spots; the Saamanthula caste came at the bottom.

According to Justice D. Subrahmanyam, Chairman, A.P. Backward Classes Commission, the Hanurav Committee did not submit any conclusion though it provided comprehensive and reliable statistics in four volumes. The Karnataka Government began a similar exercise in 2004-05 and sanctioned Rs.21 crore. The Centre too offered funds for the caste-wise survey. But, just when the survey was about to start, the Congress Government in the State fell and its successor put the issue on the backburner. The Backward Classes Commission of Tamil Nadu headed by Justice Janardhan is also planning a caste-wise census.

Now, the A.P. Commission has approached the State Government to fund a caste-wise survey estimated to cost Rs.50 crore. In fact, under Section 11 of the A.P. Backward Classes Act, the Commission is expected to undertake a revision of the list of Backward Classes once every 10 years. It is due in 2011.

Justice Subrahmanyam, a former High Court judge, says: "We have to complete the exercise before 2011 to determine castes that have advanced and those that have not. Although a census may take time, it has to be done one day or the other to avoid facing rejection from the courts. The Centre itself must conduct a nation-wide survey for which the Planning Commission can allocate funds."

While carefully sidestepping the temptation of drawing conclusions from the wealth of statistics he collected, Hanurav observed in the epilogue to his report: "There is definitely a case for changing the backwardness status of some of the castes, upwards in some cases and downwards in some."

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