The head-count and some gaps

Published : Mar 03, 2001 00:00 IST

Census 2001, which is expected to make significant additions to the existing data on several counts, raises some controversies too, particularly in the matter of recording the caste identity of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Sc heduled Tribes.

THE official website of India's Registrar-General and Census Commissioner ( claims that the "rich diversity of the people of India is truly reflected through the decennial Census, which is one of the basic tools to understand a nd study India." However, the enumeration in connection with Census of India 2001, which was undertaken from February 9 to February 28 and which will be followed by a revisional round from March 1 to March 5, has raised several questions about the validi ty of this claim.

The significance of Census 2001, the 14th since 1872 and the sixth since Independence, lies in the fact that it is the first Census of the 21st century and the third millennium. Will Census 2001 give a "complete account of the socio-economic development and demographic health of the ever-burgeoning population of India", as the first press note issued by the Office of the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner of India promises?

On the face of it, Census 2001 has not made any radical departure from the past decennial censuses in the matter of eliciting information from the people. Thus, when serious questions are raised about some aspects of Census 2001, they need to be understo od in terms of the socio-political changes that took place during the past decade.

Among the various aberrations that have come to light since the launching of the population enumeration on February 9 is the inability of the enumerators to record accurately the identity of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Trib es. Under the Household Schedule, question number 8 requires the enumerator to record whether the respondent belongs to a Scheduled Caste, and the name of the Scheduled Caste from the list supplied to him or her. This list includes only those castes that are declared as Scheduled Castes in that particular State or Union Territory. As a result, if a Scheduled Caste respondent migrates from one State to another in search of employment or livelihood or better career prospects, he or she is not counted as b elonging to a Scheduled Caste.

Ridiculous though it might look, officials in the Office of the R.G. and Census Commissioner plead helplessness as they are guided by the provisions of the Census Act, 1948, as followed over the decades. This aberration was glaringly evident when Registr ar-General and Census Commissioner J.K. Banthia met President K.R. Narayanan on February 9 to launch the month-long enumeration drive. The President's enumerators found that they could not correctly list his caste status in the form supplied to him, as h is caste, Paravan, is a Scheduled Caste in Kerala but not in Delhi. Even though Census officials and the Rashtrapati Bhavan refuse to reveal how the matter was finally sorted out, under the plea that information collected through the Census is confidenti al, it is evident that in such cases enumerators have no option but to leave the column empty and not count the respondent as belonging to a Scheduled Caste.

Para 67 of the Census Manual (a set of instructions for the enumerators prepared by the Registrar-General of India) says: "You have been furnished with a list of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes in relation to your State or Union Territory. Ascertai n if the person enumerated belongs to a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe and if he or she does, write the name of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe under the appropriate question. For a person who is not a member of any Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe, put a 'dash' (-) under both the questions 8 and 9."

Para 67.1 goes on to say that if the person (respondent) merely claims to belong to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, but says that he/she does not belong to any of the notified communities applicable to the area, as reflected in the list supplied to you, he/she will not be reckoned as belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe."

Worse, Frontline learnt that in a few cases the enumerators, contrary to the requirement, did not have even the list of Scheduled Castes of the State where they did the head-count (there is reason to believe that their number could be large). If a respondent claims to belong to a Scheduled Caste, his or her claim is accepted and the caste declared is duly recorded in the Schedule. "It is for our superiors to find out whether the caste declared by a person claiming to belong to a Scheduled Caste i s in the list or not, and decide whether to count the respondent as belonging to an S.C.," an enumerator told Frontline. He said: "When even the Delhi S.C. list is not supplied to us, how can you expect us to carry all-India SC/ST lists?" Delhi, f or instance, has no S.T. list.

Para 67.3 of the Census Manual and Question 9 in the Schedule say that a Scheduled Tribe can belong to any religion. However, a Scheduled Caste person can belong to only the Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religion as per Question 8 in the Schedule. Here, Hindus or Sikhs or Buddhists would also include their sects and beliefs, the Manual explains. Judicial interpretations and legislative amendments have clarified that the list of Scheduled Castes would include only those following the Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist re ligions among the notified castes in every State, the upshot being that members of S.Cs who convert to religions other than Sikhism and Buddhism would lose their S.C. status. While the rights of Dalits among Sikhs were recognised in the 1960s, those of D alit Buddhists were recognised only in the 1990s, after a sustained struggle.

However, for Dalit Christians, who have been seeking inclusion among the Scheduled Castes, the Census Schedule and the Manual appear to be a major disappointment. The Bill to confer the S.C. status on Dalit Christians was to be passed in Parliament in 19 96. But it was abandoned on technical grounds, as it was introduced without giving the statutory notice period. The Bharatiya Janata Party opposed the Bill, arguing that it would cut into the benefits enjoyed by other S.Cs and that the Christian converts , who abandoned Hinduism, should not be entitled to the benefits that go with the S.C. status. The Bill has not yet seen the light of the day, even though it had raised hopes among Dalit Christians, who have been fighting for S.C. status for long.

John Dayal, secretary-general of the All India Christian Council, said: "This is a Census operation and not an application for government jobs. No downstream benefits will accrue from the Census. There is admittedly no caste in Christianity, Sikhism, Bud dhism and Islam. But there is Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Islam among Dalits. That is a fact."

The Council served a legal notice on the Registrar-General of India demanding that secondary questions on religion not be put to members of the S.Cs. According to the Council, tribal leaders from Madhya Pradesh and certain other States have complained th at local enumerators were not listing tribal Christians as belonging to the S.Ts, even though the Schedule and the Manual say that they can belong to any religion. It felt that there were ulterior political motives in several questions and that a blatant attempt was made to communalise the Census operation, thereby vitiating the exercise and seriously compromising its scientific-demographic character and development-oriented statistical utility.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has expressed its concern over the fact that a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste has been made to choose from among Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths to declare his or her religious faith, and wanted the Census Co mmissioner to ensure that persons belonging to the S.Cs who had converted to other religions or chose to remain animists or agnostics are also counted as belonging to S.Cs.

Muslim activist and former Member of Parliament Syed Shahabuddin pointed out in a letter to the Registrar-General that it was not just Christians who were aggrieved. He wrote: "Many Muslim Indians are descendants of untouchables who are now classified as Scheduled Castes and some of them still engage in the same vocation and form biradris (brotherhood) like Halalkhor, (scavenger community) which is akin to the Hindu group "Dom", recognised as a Scheduled Caste." Union Communications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, president of the Lok Jan Shakthi, who heads the All India Dalit Sena, is also supportive of the demand that Dalits converted to religions other than Sikhism and Buddhism should be classified as belonging to Scheduled Castes.

Common to all these protests is the perception that Census data should not be construed as a licence or a facilitator for positive discrimination. Even if the Constitution confers Scheduled Caste status only on those professing faith in three religions f or the purpose of reservation in Parliament and State Assemblies and in public employment, it does not prohibit the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner from following the same criteria for the head-count. The issue here is whether members of the Sc heduled Castes could enjoy the same freedom as other citizens in recording their religion. After all, no proof of identity is being insisted on by the enumerators; so why restrict the freedom of choice of religion to those who consider themselves as Dali ts or members of Scheduled Castes? According to Article 341, for instance, if there is no proof of conversion to a religion other than the Hindu religion but mere acceptance of certain ideological tenets, a person does not lose his or her status as the m ember of a Scheduled Caste (Chaturbhuj vs Moreswar, 1954, S.C.R.816 (841).

The crux of the controversy is the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, issued by the President under Article 341. In this Order, the President, exercising the authority conferred upon him by Article 341, specifies which of the castes are S.Cs. T he Order includes the lists of S.Cs. for each State. In its third paragraph, it says that no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu or Sikh religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste. This Order was amended in 1990 to include Buddhism as the third religion to which an S.C. person could belong. The 1996 Bill sought to add Christianity to the list. Christian groups have been agitating against this paragraph in the Order.

Fr. S. Lourduswamy, executive secretary of the Commission for Scheduled Castes and Tribes and Backward Classes of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said that the additions in Columns 8 and 9 of the Census Schedule were striking and that they poi nted to certain ulterior motives of the present government. He claimed that the addition, given within parentheses in Column 8, that there could be S.Cs only among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists was not there in the 1991 Census Schedule. The clarification g iven in Column 9 that S.Ts could be from any religion was also not there in the 1991 Schedule. The only inference, he said, was that there was scope of misuse by enumerators who could be biased for various reasons. Can one belonging to an S.C. or an S.T. not declare oneself as an atheist or an animist? he asked.

Protests from other sections brought to light more inconsistencies. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) has warned that if the Census is held as scheduled in Jharkhand, a large number of tribal people living away from their homelands would be left out. The Registrar-General assured the party that a fool-proof system had been evolved to deal with such cases.

Other anomalies and aberrations include the categorisation of sex workers as beggars and the grouping of eunuchs as men. The new questions in the Schedule on fertility particulars seek details only of married, widowed, divorced or separated women. It doe s not, for instance, consider the possibility that fertility particulars could be obtained from unmarried women.

NOTWITHSTANDING these questions, Census 2001 would make a significant addition to the existing data on several counts. There are now questions on the age of marriage for males, disability by type and the mode of travel to the place of work, and a questio n for a household engaged in cultivation and plantation. In addition, to ensure accuracy and authenticity of the information collected, a provision has been made in the Schedule to record the name of the respondent and her/his relationship to the head of the family, and his/her signature or thumb impression with date.

Over two million enumerators and supervisors have visited about 200 million households in about 6.5 lakh villages and more than 5,500 towns and cities, and covering about a billion people. Despite the gaps, the Census will provide a snapshot of the popul ation of the country as on March 1. The first phase involving house-listing was completed between April and September 2000. Population enumeration in the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir and the snow-bound areas of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh wer e completed in advance. The preliminary results of the Census, expected to be released towards the end of March, should throw more light on the effectiveness of this gigantic exercise.

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