‘It doesn’t make sense for a mature civil society to rely on outdated data for important policy decisions,’ she says. ‘A carefully constructed and honestly carried out exercise will lead to the design of a better system for targeting affirmative action.’
So, setting aside the rights and wrongs of trying, is it even practically possible to include caste in the census this time around? Desai says she thinks it is. ‘The enumeration stage where information about individuals (as opposed to households) will be collected will take place in February 2011 and so they can collect caste information if needed.’ But, she says it would still be better to separate the tasks to ensure a more thorough job.
‘This could be done as a one-time caste census or could be included in the 2021 census,’ she says.
Babu says logistical excuses are anyway a red herring, adding that the tardy debate hints at politicians’ short-term way of operating. ‘What prevented the government from preparing for this properly?’ he asks. ‘(And) nobody is stopping us from having a parallel exercise, a special census next year. Why should we have another decade of groping in the dark, and be having the same discussions in 2021?’
But even if it is possible logistically, many Indians still have their doubts. ‘I understand the intellectual justification for having such information,’ says 39-year-old Amarjeet Singh, a Delhi resident. ‘But I think caste is a visceral issue. As a child, I was ostracised by my father’s family for many years because he married outside of his caste. My cousins wouldn’t play with me. I’m not scarred for life. But any mention of caste still makes me uncomfortable.’
Priyabhanshu is, understandably, more direct. ‘According to official data, 77 percent of people in our country live on a daily income of less than Rs. 20 (40 US cents). Lower castes, upper castes, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are all part of this group. Why divide these people on the basis of caste and religion?’ he asks.
‘They all have just one caste— deprived and voiceless.’