Print edition : October 19, 2007

Daily-wage workers in a paddy field near Palakkad, Kerala. In rural India, agricultural labour is the crucial indicator of socio-economic vulnerability and strength. - K.K. MUSTAFAH

Selective presentation of National Sample Survey figures and distortions make the backward classes look as if they are not backward.

Daily-wage workers in

The 55th round survey (1999-2000) of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has been in the news since 2005 when a few scholars and columnists thought they had made a discovery. In its data, they found an amulet against the spectre of reservation for the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes/Other Backward Classes/Backward Classes and, if possible, against reservation for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts).

Since then, there has been a lot of misuse of the data. In fact, the data can be put to use very meaningfully. Despite imperfections in the NSSO data, arising from methodological and situational factors, its educational, occupational and economic statistics bring out the following facts: (1) The values for India on various indicators/parameters which are shockingly low in comparison with other less developed countries, according to international Human Development Reports are equal to or closest to the values for the backward classes. This does not mean that the backward classes are well off, but is the explanation for the subtext of Indias dismal indicator values. (2) The values for the Other/Socially Advanced (SA) category are significantly better than the all-India values while those for the S.Cs and the S.Ts are dismal.

Educational tables of the NSSOs 61st round (2004-05) could illustrate this better (Table 1). It is recognised that education is an important tool of development and the present educational status of each social group is an indication of its level of achievements and prospects.

Social reformers such as Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, Sree Narayana Guru and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar have laid great emphasis on education for the deprived and exploited social categories. However, the educational tables from the 61st round show that the S.Cs and the S.Ts are at the lowest rung of non-education and the socially advanced category is on top with the backward classes in between; the values for backward classes are closer to those for the S.Cs than for the socially advanced category.

Since urban areas are the main recruiting ground for employment, the urban situation is of immediate importance. In the urban area, the socially advanced category is almost free of the no literate adult phenomenon. The level of the urban S.C. and S.T. is comparable to the rural socially advanced and the level of the urban S.C. or S.T. female is comparable to that of the rural Others/socially advanced female.

The data on levels of general education for each social group in the urban area are more important in assessing the prospects of each social group. Of these, the most significant is the proportion of graduates and above in each social group. Urban males predominate in the employment market. Therefore, the figures are given separately for urban males and urban females (Chart 1).

It is clear that the socially advanced category is far ahead of the backward classes and the S.Cs and the S.Ts. The backward classes fall below the S.Ts in the level of graduates. This could be because of errors in the survey in identifying the urban S.T. However, the backward classes clearly fall between the S.Cs and the socially advanced category; they are close to the S.Cs and very far from the socially advanced category in the level of graduates.


The position in metropolitan India, which is illustrated with the help of the statistics for Delhi (Chart 2), shows the greater disadvantage of the S.Cs and the backward classes against the socially advanced category. The column on S.T. figures here is evidence of the need for methodological improvements in the NSSOs Social Groups Survey because no community has been notified as S.T. in Delhi.

Significantly, the S.Cs as a whole, and particularly S.C. and backward class females of Delhi, Indias creamiest metropolis, are at a greater disadvantage compared with their counterparts all over urban India. The socially advanced category, on the other hand, enjoys a greater advantage than their urban counterparts in the rest of the country.

Also, while the education levels of socially advanced females of urban India and Delhi are close to that of their male counterparts, the education gap between S.C. and backward class females and their males is very high. This is more so in Delhi, indicating the lethal combination of caste and gender and all-round metropolitan polarisation on S.C. and backward class females.

The advantage that the socially advanced has can be seen from the fact that they form close to half the urban population (45.9 per cent) and only a quarter (25.5 per cent) of the rural population. The urban proportion of the socially advanced is nearly double their rural proportion whereas the urban proportion of the three other social groups is much less than their respective rural proportion.

Since greater urbanisation is itself evidence of greater progress, higher status and better prospects, the proportion of these groups in the rural, the urban and the combined rural and urban populations for 2004-05 from the NSSOs 61st round has been given in tabular form (Table 2). The corresponding figures for Delhi illustrate the process of concentration of the socially advanced in metropolitan India, with its far superior opportunities. This would be even clearer if and when NSSO gathers separate data for slum and non-slum areas in Delhi and other metropolises.

The position regarding other metropolises cannot be presented as for Delhi because they are part of large States while the population of the Union Territory of Delhi is mainly metropolitan.

A statement in the NSS 61st round report No.514 gives the vast disparity in urbanisation in terms of the distribution of each social group between urban and rural residence (Chart 3). Let us now come to the occupational pattern revealed by the NSSOs 61st round data. The caste-occupation link is a vital part of the caste system and its consequent impact on the tilting of current educational and economic opportunities in favour of the socially advanced and against the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the backward classes.

This link has been brought out in the well-studied analysis of the nine-member Bench judgment in the landmark Mandal (Indra Sawhney) case in 1992. Ambedkar has pointed out with great perceptiveness that the Indian system is marked by a hierarchy of occupations paralleling the hierarchy of caste.

In rural India, agricultural labour is the crucial indicator of socio-economic vulnerability and strength. The higher the number of agricultural labourers in a social group or community, the greater is its vulnerability and vice versa. In this sense, the S.C. list is mainly of agricultural labour castes. Table 3 brings out the inter-group position.

It is significant to note that the backward classes are considerably more vulnerable than the socially advanced category. A similar picture emerges from Table 4 on other rural labour.

The backward classes figure is close to the S.T. figure, considerably closer than that of the socially advanced. The total rural labour which is agricultural labour plus other rural labour constitutes a good number of the S.Cs who are tied down as labourers through the working of the caste system. This is the case with close to one half of the S.Ts and about one-third of the backward classes. However, only less than a quarter of the socially advanced category shares this fate, as seen from Table 5.

In rural India, social status is associated with land ownership and is the converse of the labour-based situation. Thus, the NSSO data reinforce the well-known picture of the S.Cs as landless or the least landed and the socially advanced as the best placed. Land ownership is considered to be the forte of the backward classes since one category of the backward classes consists of a number (but not all) of peasant castes. But even here the backward classes are not as well endowed as the socially advanced, and they are slightly lower than the S.Ts quantitatively (Table 6).

The NSSO does not provide data separately for irrigated land, quality of land and so on. If such factors are taken into account, the disparity between the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the backward classes on one side and the socially advanced category on the other will be clearer. It would then be seen to be wider than the present NSSO picture.

The NSSO does provide classification by size-class of land possessed by each social group. Table 7 gives the proportions of each category in size-classes of up to 0.4 hectare at one end and 4.01 hectare and above at the other.

In the most vulnerable size-class, the backward classes are more represented than the socially advanced, but the data for irrigation, quality of land and so on will give a sharper picture. Even with this limitation, the immiseration of the S.C. is clear. The S.T. is statistically the least vulnerable, but this is deceptive on account of the above statistical lacunae.

The latter size-class is the one from which the rural elite emerges in terms of local status and scope for better opportunities, especially higher education of children. The disparity here is eloquent. The S.C. proportion here is only about one-sixth of the socially advanced category, and the S.T. proportion about half of it. The proportion of backward classes is about one-third less than that of the socially advanced, even though land ownership is considered to be the forte of the backward classes.

In urban India, casual labour corresponds with agricultural labour in rural India and represents the most vulnerable and deprived urban category, with a predominant presence of the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the backward classes, particularly the backward classes of the Muslim religious minority. Table 8 illustrates this in respect of casual labour.

The proportion of the backward classes here is far worse than the socially advanced category; it is closer to that of the S.T. and even the S.C. than to that of the socially advanced category. In urban India, those with regular wages, or people who draw salaries (RWS), are better placed than the casual labourer. But in keeping with the statistical culture of India, which conceals more than it reveals and avoids revealing the worst, the RWS category includes topmost professionals in the public and private sectors and top civil servants, among whom the socially advanced predominate; part-time apprentices; temporary class IV and similar employees who are kept unconfirmed for years; daily-wage employees, among whom the S.Cs, the S.Ts and backward classes (including the backward classes of the religious minorities) predominate; and safai karamcharis on the regular municipal payrolls.

By putting them all together, the 61st round gives the picture of apparent near parity between the S.Cs and the S.Ts and the socially advanced category when they are really at the opposite poles within the RWS. Even then the OBCs are seen to be significantly less represented in the RWS than the socially advanced, but the chasm is wider than it appears from this figure. Table 9, for whatever it is worth, is to be taken with a pinch of statistical salt, for lack of differentiation between different layers from the top to the bottom of the RWS.

In the major category of the urban self-employed, the NSSO has jumbled together industrial magnates and kirana shopkeepers so that the figures are of no real value. The real cream, which is with persons in the socially advanced category, is well concealed. Even so the figures are given in Table 10.

Finally, there is the monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) classes (Table 11).

The first two expenditure categories (<Rs.235 and 0-Rs.410) are tied down by poverty, among whom the proportion of the S.Cs and the S.Ts is the maximal, and that of the socially advanced category is the least. The backward classes come between the two.

The last (Rs.1,155 and above) is the category from which the rural elite emerges and in which the proportion of the socially advanced is more than double that of the backward classes and more than four times that of the S.Cs and six times that of the S.Ts.

The urban area shows a similar picture but with greater polarisation (Table 12).

The last urban MPCE class (Rs.2,540 and above) is the most important as the recruiting ground for higher education and economic opportunities. Here, the S.Cs are at the bottom while the socially advanced are almost four times as much proportionately as the backward classes. The backward classes and the S.Ts are virtually on a par, but this is deceptive and is likely to be because of the NSSOs methodological error of identification of social groups, especially the S.T. in urban area and the backward classes in both urban and rural areas.

Despite these imperfections, the broad picture plainly emerges from the tables of the NSSO 61st round. But confusion has been created by a number of analyses, the main goal of which is to try to show that the backward classes are not backward. Comparison is drawn between the backward classes and the S.Cs and the S.Ts.

It is only by comparison of all the four social groups, and comparison of the backward classes with the S.Cs and the S.Ts and also with the socially advanced category, that one can get a fuller picture. As already explained, in most of the parameters the S.Cs and the S.Ts are at one extreme and the socially advanced at the other extreme. The backward classes fall between these two but are generally closer to the S.Cs and/or the S.Ts than to the socially advanced.

Naturally, the values for the backward classes are the closest to the values for India on various indicators or parameters. This does not mean that the backward classes are rich or that they are not backward. They are backward in comparison to the socially advanced category. They are not as backward as the SCs and the STs.

It has been held by the landmark Mandal case judgment of 1992 that to be classified legitimately as backward classes they do not have to be like the S.Cs and the S.Ts. This picture is not altered by Report No.514 of the NSS 61st round, just released in August 2007, which gives the above figures with some marginal variations and the details of household consumer expenditures.

If the NSSO rectifies its methodology of identification of the social groups, especially the backward classes and the socially advanced, the figures for the socially advanced, which are already the most advantageous (lowest values in disadvantageous parameters and highest values in advantageous parameters), will be seen even better than in the present tables. It will also be clear that the disparity between them and the backward classes is wider than seen at present.

Admittedly (para 2.6 of Report No.516), this was based entirely on the response of the informant, that is, the head of the household, and not based on any State-level list of social groups.

Without even an attempt to connect with the Central list for each State, such classification is bound to be significantly less than accurate, particularly regarding the groups new to the NSSO, namely the backward classes and Others or Socially Advanced (SA).

While there are inaccuracies even with regard to the percentage of the S.Cs (shown as 19.7 per cent as against 16.2 per cent in the 2001 Census) and the S.Ts (8.4 per cent as against 8.2 per cent in the 2001 Census) and the recording of the S.Ts by the NSSO in States such as Delhi, Punjab and Haryana where no community has been notified as an S.T, it is the estimation of the backward classes and the socially advanced that has been most disturbingly volatile.

From 35.8 per cent in the NSSOs 55th round (1999-2000), the figure for the backward classes has jumped to 41.1 per cent in its 61st round of 2004-05, while Others/SA has come down from 35.6 per cent to 30.7 per cent in the same period.

There is enough evidence to show that a substantial portion of the OBCs has been mixed up with the socially advanced. With some experience, the error of 1999-2000 has been partly rectified in 2004-2005, but the correction can be completed only when the NSSOs methodology is systematically and fully improved.

Through very selective presentation of the NSSO figures and distortions, an effort is being made to portray the backward classes as a large agglomeration of rich castes, without knowing or caring to know the facts.

Against 3,743 caste entries in the Mandal List in all States and Union Territories together, the Central List, through a process of double distillation, includes only 2,091 caste entries for all States and Union Territories. The castes in these lists are mostly castes of artisans (weavers and potters), artisanal workers (stone cutters, earth diggers), nomads and semi-nomads, providers of entertainment (Muslim Nats, Hindu Nats being S.Cs), providers of various services (hair-cutters and washer folk), primary non-agricultural producers (fisher folk) and providers of primary agricultural produce (peasant castes and nonS.C. agricultural labour castes), providers of various types of labour who are not S.C. (such as Bhar and Rajbhar), shepherds, cowherds and camel-herds and Muslim and Christian counterparts of the S.Cs. There cannot be and there is no dispute about any of these.

P.S. Krishnan is a former Secretary to the Government of India and former Member-Secretary of the National Commission for Backward Classes.

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