regular-article-logo Thursday, 29 February 2024

A diminishing pie

The caste census mantra dodges the urgent need to address India’s severe development deficiencies. Contests for the pie will surely increase and the country’s tearing social fabric could rip apart

Ashoka Mody Published 04.12.23, 06:00 AM
Representational image

Representational image Sourced by the Telegraph

In a land being torn by the violence and hatred of Hindutva ideology, the chorus for a caste census was inevitable. Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, triggered that inevitability on October 2 when his government announced that 63% of the state’s population belongs to either extremely backward classes (36%) or other backward classes (27%); another 21% belong to scheduled castes (Dalits) or scheduled tribes.

The finding that an extraordinarily large fraction of Bihar’s citizens belongs to castes that have suffered historical injustices set off a clamour for caste censuses in other states and at the national level. This eminently desirable initiative has, however, degenerated along tribal lines, reflecting a zero-sum mentality, one centred on finely slicing the economic pie rather than growing it.


The all-India coalition of parties, labelled INDIA, quickly joined the call for more caste censuses believing the idea could unify that disparate and fracturing group in its electoral battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party behemoth. As a pro­minent leader of that group, the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi reiterated his position that a caste’s population should determine its share of claims and governing authority (in his words, “jitni aabadi utna haq”). The ruling BJP, fearful of losing its narrative of Hindu unity, dismissed a national caste census as “administratively” impractical.

Indian democracy needs a transparent enumeration of its castes, something it has not done since 1931. In 1980, the Mandal Commission made an informed guess of the population’s distribution across castes and the data from a 2011 survey stayed in limbo until the BJP government trashed it as flawed in 2015.

But the Opposition’s elevation of a national caste census as its principal electoral plank reflects a depressing narrowness of vision. Even on data-related matters, the Opposition has made only feeble calls for a decennial census, the primary basis for socio-economic stocktaking, which the BJP has refused to conduct after missing the 2021 census. If we need a caste census, we desperately need a census. Equally, we need a consumption survey to objectively assess the extent of poverty rather than have it decreed as non-existent by government-aligned economists.

For the country though, a scandal greater than lack of data on caste composition is the widespread economic and social distress. Seventy-five years after Independence, and notwithstanding the current hype, the litany of problems is long: looming agricultural crisis, acute job scarcity, poor education and health services, dysfunctional cities, a broken judicial system, and rampant environmental damage. Without a morally grounded and credible programme to address these development deficiencies, the pie will grow too slowly and even well-meaning efforts at social justice will merely intensify contests for ever-smaller slices of the pie.

Recent history warns that politically-motivated reservations only succeed in breeding more reservations when unaccompanied by policies to create good jobs. In August 1990, the former prime minister, V.P. Singh, pulled the Mandal Commission report out of cold storage to reserve 27% of Central government jobs for OBCs. This was on top of the 22.5% of jobs reserved for SCs and STs. With unabated demand for jobs, however, reservations became a political game. Communities excluded from OBC status began campaigning for inclusion in that group. The concern also arose that some OBC communities were cornering the reservations. In October 2017, the government established a commission under the retired Justice G. Rohini to sub-categorise OBCs within a period of 12 weeks. The Commission soon expressed its inability to complete the “voluminous” work in the short period assigned and received its first extension. It has since received 14 extensions, the last in January 2023.

The demand for reservations kept increasing. In January 2019, the government moved to reserve 10% of its jobs for economically backward upper castes. Coming on top of prior reservations, this meant that 60% of government jobs would be reserved. In November 2022, the Supreme Court authorised this initiative, putting aside its earlier objection to reserving more than half the jobs. This latest expansion entitles the vast majority of citizens to reservations since only families with gross annual income of Rs 8 lakh or more are ineligible for reservations, the same threshold that excludes the ‘creamy layer’ among the OBCs.

The contest for jobs does not stop. Once a proudly leading caste group in Maharashtra, the Marathas have been the victims of the pie growing too slowly. Since 2016, lakhs of Maratha protestors demanding reservations have marched in ‘Kranti Morchas’ (Revolutionary Marches), including those that turned violent in 2018. The courts are stumped on the legitimacy of Maratha claims. A sober economic analysis concludes that, in Maharashtra, Marathas are only second to the Brahmins in well-being. However, the Maratha leader, Manoj Jarange-Patil, wants his caste brethren to be classified as Kunbis or tillers which would entitle them to reservations within the OBC category. As India Today puts it, the demand for Maratha reservations is a “ticking political bomb” in Maharashtra.

The demand for reservations is never-ending because distress is extensive. The Bihar caste census finds that just over a third of the state’s families live in poverty, surviving on less than Rs 6,000 per month. A quarter or more of the state’s historically privileged castes — Brahmins, Rajputs, and Bhumihars — are poor. In the dry belts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, farmer suicides have long been a plague. Farmer suicides are increasing even in Punjab.

At great personal risk, rapidly increasing numbers of Indians are attempting to migrate illegally to the United States of America and Europe. Migrants to the US are mainly from the ‘richer’ states of Gujarat and Punjab, which — despite their progress — offer only bleak economic prospects. In Punjab, among the scores who try, some slip into Europe on student visas through which they disappear into the European labour market. While the number of illegal migrants is small relative to India’s population, they, like the farmers who die by suicide, convey a broader sense of desperation by operating beyond the edge of normality.

Playing up the hype that this is India’s moment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi touts India’s participation, even leadership, in the global “fourth Industrial Revolution.” But to appease widespread desperation, he also extended the free foodgrain programme to 80 crore people (nearly 60% of the population) while campaigning recently for the state assembly elections.

No political party prioritises genuine social justice that accompanies material progress through education, health, functional cities, dignified jobs, justice for all, and environmental protection. The dominant ideology fiercely opposes workers’ rights and higher minimum wages. Instead, subsidies of necessities — recently relabelled ‘guarantees’ — are the lazy political norm, cynically branded ‘new welfarism’. These palliatives do not reduce vulnerability because they do not expand productive capacity or opportunities for upward mobility. Similarly, strident calls for a caste census merely ratchet up fake promises of social justice.

With Hindutva ideologues using the friend-enemy divide for political gain, pursuing political mileage through caste divisions was unavoidable. However, the caste census mantra dodges the urgent need to address India’s severe development deficiencies. Contests for the pie will surely increase, entrenching political tribalism. The country’s tearing social fabric could rip apart.

Ashoka Mody teaches at Princeton University. He is the author of India is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today

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