Indian caste census begins in Delhi

India's caste-based census began in New Delhi, with the state's chief minister defending the count as an effort to streamline social welfare programs.

"It is important that these things are evaluated in India to find out which sections are weaker and need to get social justice. This census will help formulate processes in this direction as information is gathered till micro level," the Economic Times quoted Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as saying.

Nationwide, the caste census began in July, to some controversy. On the one hand, some argued that codifying and enumerating India's castes would cement the very forms of discrimination and inequality that the government is seeking to eliminate. While on the other, many argued that it makes no sense to design social programs blindly, that too with a commitment to a cultivated ignorance. 

But since the last caste census was carried out before Independence in 1931, the results could cause some major shakeups. Most importantly, India's quota system for jobs and higher education is meant to reflect groups' presence in the population. So the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (the erstwhile untouchables and aboriginal tribal peoples) get 22.5 percent of the pie. But what if they actually represent 30 percent of the population? Or 10 percent? Suddenly you get a radical transformation — or the call for one.

So in the context of modern Indian politics, Dikshit's innocuous statement is practically heresy.  Information? Perish the thought! If we knew the economic conditions of India's various castes and creeds, we might have to base our spending programs on the data, rather than formulations that will help our politicians win elections, the logic runs.

Already, the national government has pushed through a food subsidy bill in advance of completing a survey to determine how many people are actually living in poverty. And various state governments and parties are pushing for changes in the quota system for jobs and higher education to hive off a special category for Muslim members of the castes referred to as the "other backward classes" without any real study of what that would mean.

But more information doesn't always mean better action, either. In the past, studies on the economic conditions of Muslims compared with the general population or discrimination against Dalit students at institutes of higher education have yielded lengthy reports, but little else.

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