THE decision of the Central government, at a meeting chaired by Home Minister Rajnath Singh on August 31, to canvass data with regard to the socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs) in Census 2021 is both welcome and long overdue. This will provide a mine of valuable information—economic, occupational, educational and social—that can facilitate better planning of the comprehensive socio-economic development of the SEBCs and the formulation of schemes tailored to the development needs of different categories of the SEBCs.
This fits in with the recognition of the specific role entrusted to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), which is being set up for the SEBCs under the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-third) Amendment Act that Parliament passed in its 2018 monsoon session.
Such data for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) have been available since the first census of independent India in 1951. It has helped officials to formulate development plans and design specific programmes for the S.Cs and the S.Ts more precisely. This writer, too, has been communicating to the government, in the form of a road map, his suggestions and advice based on his countrywide knowledge and experience of more than seven decades. However, the process is yet to be addressed holistically and comprehensively by governments.
One more welcome and long-overdue task being undertaken by the government is the categorisation of the SEBCs, for which a commission was set up in October 2017 under the chairpersonship of Justice (Retd) G. Rohini and whose report is expected by November 2018. This will also help in meaningful and holistic development planning and in the formulation of programmes for different categories of the SEBCs.
The census data will be available only in 2024, but planning and formulation of appropriate schemes do not have to wait until then. They can be started straightaway and fine-tuned when the census data become available. As of now, there is reservation in government employment, in admissions to higher educational institutions and for a few limited and disjointed schemes such as scholarships.
The long delay in taking up the census of the SEBCs as part of the decennial census is typical of the neglect of the SEBCs by the Centre. The southern States and even States such as Bihar under the late Karpoori Thakur have a better record than the Centre with regard to the SEBCs. Article 340 of the Constitution had been flouted by the Central government until 1990 when the V.P. Singh government introduced 27 per cent reservation, as recommended by the Mandal Commission in 1980, for the SEBCs, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1992. Thereafter, it was another 14 years before the then Minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, whose honorary adviser this writer was, introduced in 2006 a legislation for 27 per cent reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in admissions to Central educational institutions, along with reservation for the S.Cs and the S.Ts. This partly fulfilled the mandate of the 93rd Constitution Amendment, which inserted Clause (5) in Article 15. Thereafter, it has taken more than a decade for the reforms of 2017-18. The need for a census with due attention to the SEBCs has been urged by various commissions, including the Kaka Kalelkar Commission (1953-55) and the Mandal Commission (1978-80) at the national level and State Backward Class commissions such as the Sattanathan (1969-70) and Ambasankar (1985) commissions of Tamil Nadu, the Anantharaman Commission (1968-70) of Andhra Pradesh and the Havanur Commission (1972-75) of Karnataka.
After the Mandal Commission Report was submitted to the government in 1980, the Census Commissioner of India convened a conference in 1988 to elicit views for planning Census 1991. I participated in it as Special Commissioner for S.Cs and S.Ts. In addition to giving suggestions for improvements in gathering data in respect of the S.Cs and the S.Ts, I advised that data regarding the SEBCs should be collected in the census. I kept in view the fact that the Mandal Commission’s Report could be expected to be implemented sooner rather than later and data gathering in Census 1991 would be of help.
Thereafter, the NCBC, of which I was Member-Secretary, gave formal institutional advice to the Government of India in its report of 1997 and by a formal letter that data regarding the SEBCs be taken, as was being done for the S.Cs and the S.Ts, in Census 2001. This, too, was not considered seriously by either of the two governments of that period.
When preparations for Census 2011 were being made, I suggested to the government a precise format by which data for the SEBCs could be easily gathered. This consisted of opening a new column, next to the column for the S.Cs and the S.Ts, in respect of the SEBCs (“Case for BC Count”, Frontline , July 2, 2010). This would enable every item of census information, in addition to population data, to be filled up in respect of the SEBCs. This was a very manageable task because by that time there was a Central list of the SEBCs. All that an enumerator in each State had to do was to keep with him/her the Central list of the SEBCs for that State and ask each person whether he/she belonged to any of the castes in that list and fill each item under that column accordingly. This is the procedure followed for the S.Cs and the S.Ts in the census.
These suggestions were communicated in writing to the government, in particular to the then Home Minister, and to the Census Commissioner, and also explained at consultations and conferences of the SEBCs regarding this matter. Unfortunately, the then Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, pronounced that a B.C. census would “compromise the integrity of the Census”. I do not know what he meant by that.
Then the government embarked on the path of socio-economic caste census (SECC) in 2011 and entrusted this work to the ministries of Rural Development and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, neither of which has the required expertise or the background or the infrastructure for this task. It was clear that this exercise was foredoomed to failure insofar as the SEBC data were concerned. Instead of asking each respondent whether she or he belonged to any of the castes in the SEBC list for the State concerned, the respondents were asked which caste they belonged to. They variously gave names of castes, sub-castes, sub-sub-castes, synonyms, clans, gotras, and so on. The outcome was a chaotic number of castes—as many as 46 lakh, according to The Times of India .
An expert committee was set up in 2015 under Arvind Panagariya, then Vice Chairman of the NITI Aayog, to make sense out of this welter of “information”. Panagariya is an eminent economist, but he has no background in social demography. The other members of the committee were not appointed. This, then, was a non-starter. Thereafter, the task of making sense of the data seems to have been dumped on the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
The SECC provided some economic information, which is useful for identifying beneficiaries on economic basis for schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana. But the original purpose of securing data caste-wise, in particular SEBC-caste-wise, remained unfulfilled.
Enumerators and supervisors in the next census should be instructed to start with the Central list of the SEBCs for each State. This has to be meticulously planned, and census personnel have to be fully trained so that there is no error or confusion in the SEBC data that is gathered.
The Central list for each State for Central purposes and the State’s own list for State purposes are the same or nearly wholly the same in respect of most States. In some cases, particularly Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, there are certain entries of castes that are not in the Mandal list or the Central list and whose applications for inclusion have been rejected by the government on the advice tendered by the NCBC after a public enquiry and in-depth study. These States may want to collect data of castes that are included in the State list but not in the Central list. In case they so wish, there may be one column for castes that are in the Central SEBC list and another column for castes that are only in the State list. This will help States plan for the development of these castes also. This does not mean the inclusion of such castes in the Central list after they have already been left out by the Mandal process and/or rejected by the government on the advice of the NCBC.
The media reaction to this important development is, as usual, distorted. They can think of only the electoral context and reservation rather than the holistic socio-economic development of the SEBCs. The Mandal Commission’s recommendations deal with all these aspects. It is true that all parties are motivated by electoral calculations, which are perhaps inevitable in the democratic process and its working. But what is important is whether the decision is right or wrong and whether it helps to secure an important social purpose and to fulfil the constitutional mandate of social equality and social justice.
This is the standard by which every decision should be measured. By this standard, this decision and other decisions pertaining to the SEBCs and the S.C. and the S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018, should be welcomed and appreciated.
At the same time, possible loopholes, including in the NCBC Act, 2018, should be identified and moves made to plug them.
Another short-sighted approach of the media is to link the SEBC census with 27 per cent reservation for the SEBCs. The SEBC census by itself does not have any bearing on the reservation for the OBCs. The 27 per cent reservation was proposed by the Mandal Commission keeping in view the 50 per cent limit mentioned in the Balaji judgment of 1963, though the Mandal Commission’s own estimate of the SEBC population was 52 per cent. This estimate was questioned in writ petitions, and subsequently the Supreme Court in its Mandal case judgment (Indra Sawhney vs Union of India) upheld the 27 per cent reservation on the grounds that it was nobody’s case that the population of the B.Cs was less than 27 per cent.
In view of the basis on which the Supreme Court arrived at the conclusion, on a harmonious interpretation of Clauses (1) and (4) of Article 16, that 50 per cent be the limit for “vertical” reservation, that is, reservation for the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the SEBCs, whether the population of the SEBCs is 52 per cent or 40 per cent or 60 per cent by itself would make no difference to the 27 per cent Central quota. State quotas vary from State to State. For example, in Kerala it is 40 per cent for the SEBCs in employment under the State because reservation for the S.Cs and the S.Ts together is only 10 per cent based on their population.
The National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 55th Round (1999-2000) Survey came out with the figure of 35.8 per cent as the population percentage of the SEBCs.
While some people thought that the figure would make the 27 per cent quota untenable, it is to be noted that the NSSO survey underestimated the population of the SEBCs on account of certain methodological limitations of the survey. In the next survey, the NSSO estimated the population of the SEBCs to be 41.1 per cent. This was not the result of accretion in the numbers of the SEBCs but because of the part-removal of earlier limitations in the NSSO’s survey methodology, and when this process is completed the figure may go up closer to the Mandal Commission’s estimate of 52 per cent. In any case, all the speculation will be put to rest once the SEBC census data of 2021 come out.
The census data may be helpful in another way. The Justice Rohini Commission for categorisation of the SEBCs is expected to categorise them on the basis of relative degrees of backwardness, possibly into four categories, Backward Classes, More Backward Classes, Most Backward Classes and Extremely Backward Classes and apportion the 27 per cent quota among them. These sub-quotas can be fine-tuned after the data of Census 2021 are published.
There is one more social category for which census data is important, namely, the Nomadic, Semi-Nomadic and Vimukta-Jati/Denotified communities (NSNVJs/DNTs). At present, they are distributed among the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the SEBCs. The Renke Commission, set up by the previous United Progressive Alliance government, and the Idate Commission set up by the present government envisage their constitution into a separate class and the provision of separate quotas and separate social justice measures for them. It may not be practicable to bring them all together as a separate class. It would be more practicable to give them priority within the social classes (viz., S.C., S.T. and SEBC) in which they presently exist.
The Rohini Commission’s proposals for categorisation may look after the NSNVJ/DNT communities which are in the Central list of the SEBCs. Caste-wise and tribe-wise data are available in respect of the S.Cs and the S.Ts.
The population and other data regarding the NSNVJs/DNTs among the S.Cs and the S.Ts can be culled from the census tables for the S.Cs and the S.Ts. In 1980, as Joint Secretary in charge of the S.Cs and the SEBCs in the then Ministry of Home Affairs, I incorporated the aspect of developmental schemes for them in the formula I designed for the distribution of Special Central Assistance to the States’ Special Component Plans.
This aspect of the development of the NSNVJs/DNTs has also been incorporated in the draft national and State legislation for the “Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes and Tribal Sub-Plan and S.C. and S.T. Development Authorities”, which have been circulated among leaders of the Central and State governments. Their enactment and the process of developmental planning suggested therein can holistically address the development and advancement of the NSNVJs/DNTs among the S.Cs and the S.Ts.
The Census data of 2021 can be expected to provide such data for the NSNVJs/DNTs among the SEBCs. In my written and verbal advice to the Rohini Commission, I have suggested that NSNVJs/DNTs should be included in the subcategory of Extremely Backward Castes. This will then enable better and appropriate developmental planning and other comprehensive social justice measures for this extremely deprived category.
It is essential that organisations of the SEBCs and those working for their rights keep a watch on the devising of schedules and the methodology for the gathering of SEBC data in the census, and the actual conduct of the census, so that what has been secured after so much effort and such an inordinate delay has useful outcomes and output without any scope for error or confusion. I have suggested to the Census Commissioner to place in the public domain the schedules and methodology after drafting and before finalising them.
P.S. Krishnan retired from the Indian Administrative Service as Secretary to Government of India and is in the field of social justice for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes.