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Don't Link Caste Census to Biometric Data

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                Letter to the Group of Ministers on Caste Census

Honourable Members,

We welcome your decision to enumerate caste in Census 2011. This is a progressive and much needed step towards re-orienting our polity and revitalising the implementation of social policy.

We are, however, deeply distressed to learn that you have recommended that the collection of caste data be done in conjunction with the National Population Register (NPR) process at the biometric data capture stage. We respectfully urge you to reconsider this move because it will not only defeat the very purpose of enumerating caste, but will condemn the entire exercise to almost certain failure.

Please note, Honourable Members, that even its most ardent supporters have never claimed that caste enumeration will be easy. Every Indian Census for at least the past three decades has been the largest and most complex project of its kind in human history. The Census of India (or the Office of the Registrar General of India – ORGI) is the only competent agency in the country with the necessary expertise and experience to undertake this gigantic task. It has successfully collected caste data in the past, and with the vastly superior technological resources available today, it can do so again despite the challenge of enumerating 120 crore Indians. The collection of caste data at the stage of biometric capture would be cumbersome and time consuming. Outside agencies are likely to be involved, and therefore there are chances of data gathering being compromised because it would be tagged on to the huge task of biometric documentation of about 84 crore Indians. If caste data is compromised, it defeats the very objectives that the data is meant to achieve. The respective time frames are also important – the Census enumeration phase will definitely be over by March 2011 whereas the biometric data capture process is likely to take much longer.

An even more decisive argument against attaching caste enumeration to biometric data capture is that, as of now, it is not clear what socio-economic or educational data – if any – will be available through this method. If all we get is a headcount of castes among the 15-plus population, then the entire exercise is a waste. The main reason to enumerate caste is to enable the distribution of national resources and opportunities to be informed by empirical evidence on sex-ratios, literacy, life expectancy, occupation, household assets, and so on. Without such evidence, all the problems that are blocking the implementation of social justice policies will remain unsolved. By contrast, we know that including caste in the existing enumeration process scheduled for February 2011 will enable all the data normally collected by the Census to be correlated with caste. This method will have the additional advantage of the close supervision of a trained body of census officials.

Finally, there are the constitutional-legal issues, and the crucial question of confidentiality. The Census Act 1948 provides strong protection for all data collected by the Census, and this has ensured that the Census – which necessarily collects individual information – has released only aggregated and anonymised data. Given the absence of such protection under the Citizenship Rules of 2003 – which governs the NPR and the biometric data capture process – there is every chance of the confidentiality of caste data being breached. If the main concern is to eliminate the possibility of inflation of numbers and to protect the integrity of the head count, then other measures are available. For example, the household population totals (along with gender breakup) already collected in the Houselisting and Housing Census Schedule can be used as a check on the caste data at the enumeration stage.

It is for all these reasons that, at a recent national conference organized by the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion of the National Law School of India, Bengaluru, a group of distinguished academics, policy and legal experts agreed unanimously that the proper agency for caste enumeration is the ORGI, and the proper stage is the house-to-house Population Enumeration phase of Census 2011 to be conducted from 9–28 February, 2011. In fact, the group went so far as to issue a strong warning against associating caste enumeration with the NPR process.

Enumerating castes has compelling benefits for our society. It will invigorate our social justice policies; provide the credible evidence demanded by our judiciary; allow the revision of beneficiary group listings; and help profile India’s social diversity. Therefore, we congratulate you, Honourable Members, for having taken this bold and visionary step. We also appeal to you not to undo the good that you have done. We urge you to entrust caste enumeration to the tried and trusted census organisation and avoid the serious risks of linking it to biometric data capture.


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