Including the caste questions in India’s national census

I recently read India's pre-census piloting experience of Alaka Basu in The Telegraph today. (Backdrop: The Indian parliament has recently voted in favour of including caste enumeration in the census and she is reflecting on caste inclusion in Indian census in this opinion piece.)

Describing her experience with the possible pre census pilot, at one point in the opinion piece she wrote, " The girls certainly did not seem very sure about what they were asking or how they were to record my answer". The way I read this, this is a signal to a potential problem for people interested to mine the census data in future. What is the risk of observer or recording errors? How much of that might be due to faulty representations by respondents themselves and how much of it might be due to people recording the data on site? While the census inclusion of caste data is an excellent strategy the potential pitfalls need to be taken into consideration and reports like this are invaluable guides at the pilot stage. I hope the census organizers are alerted to this. I tend to think very highly of the Indian census process, and they do excellent job. 

Then the following observation is brilliant. Where she writes, " … we will also know much more than the size of each caste group. We will have fairly reliable information on other characteristics of each group. This means we will be, in principle at least, able to call the bluff of many groups seeking special status — through job reservations or affirmative action — by checking how well such caste membership actually correlates with socio-economic disadvantage. There is some fear that some or even many members of specific groups will be smart enough or indoctrinated to become dishonest enough to understate their socio-economic status to bolster their claims for special treatment. But it is unlikely that such misstating will be large or systematic enough to greatly distort our overall picture of caste differentials in socio-economic disadvantage. I say this because many of the aspects of SES being measured in the census — nature of home building materials, or access to water, toilets, electricity, cooking fuel, or ownership of assets like a television or scooter — are not easy to hide.

This caste census may be our best chance yet to develop a strong empirical argument for denying special or other backward classes status to any group that can muster enough numbers to make the kind of exorbitant claims on public resources that are currently commonplace. The SES by caste tabulations that the census will generate may not give national or state governments the courage to un-reserve groups that no longer have a need for special consideration, but they will at least provide the evidence to deny such privileges to even more groups. "

But the problem here might lie in the nature of the data itself. There is that risk of ecological fallacy, that of deduction for individuals based on data from population such as census. While the census might still be valuable in providing guidelines, the real pitfalls of relying only on aggregated data may lie elsewhere, something worth thinking about. 

This is where it gets really interesting. Where she writes,

And when there are more and more such daughters and sons, who find their partners within their own gotra or outside their own caste and sub-caste (and even religion and country), that is when the census will be in a real fix with its question on caste. I got a taste of this fix when the lovely enumerators wanted to know our household caste. Since I have a husband (from another caste/community) and since the resident male is decreed the household head in our census forms, and since the household caste question is to be answered only with reference to the household head, I am happy to report that my own caste will continue to remain a secret in official records. But even when (if) we reach the exalted stage of not equating household characteristics, interests or identities with the characteristics, interests and identities of its individual members, a mixed caste household will be flummoxed by the caste census. I may be able to state my caste separately from my spouse’s. But what caste will my poor children claim on that cyclostyled form?

And when there are so many such impure and unclassifiable children that any caste tabulations we generate from census data spew out nonsensical results, perhaps then we can haughtily declare that the Indian State is taking us back to a regressive past by asking for our caste. Maybe 200 years from now."

I think the real problem with caste enumeration lies here. Interestingly, one needed the caste information for this same reason. 

Overall, a very interesting piece to read and reflect on.

Posted via email from Arin’s Stream


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