As Delhi postpones census, 100 million Indians are left without food subsidies
Aid distribution is still based on 2011 data, and does not take into account large sections of the population. The census scheduled for last year was postponed to a later date. The BJP refuses to carry out a caste census as demanded by opposition parties.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, India postponed by a year its ten-year population census set for 2021; however, a year later, the government has yet to announce when the preparatory phase will start.
The last census was taken in 2011, a not unsubstantial problem since welfare policies and public assistance are based on population data.
According to some estimates, about 100 million Indians are not receiving any government food subsidies because the beneficiaries are still defined based on statistics from 10 years ago.
In Jharkhand for example, the state has stopped issuing new ration cards to avoid exceeding the number set by the central government with about 700,000 applications still pending since 2020.
According to Jean Dreze, economist and social activist, “There is a danger of serious confusion and even conflict, for instance around the coverage of food subsidies, the delimitation of constituencies, and resource allocation.”
More importantly, the census provides information on employment and consumer spending, which in turn are used to measure poverty levels. Census data also serve as sampling frame for other government surveys.
Questionnaires administered today are based on statistics that might be unreliable because of substantial population growth and rapid economic development in certain states, like Uttar Pradesh, which have profoundly changed India’s demographic profile.
For many experts and critics, nothing justifies delaying the census. they point out that during the pandemic, elections were held in several Indian states; yet, now that the worst of the pandemic is undoubtedly over, the census continues to be the one thing that is suspended indefinitely.
Only in 1941, during the Second World War, was the census not taken; otherwise, it was conducted regularly every 10 years since 1881. Other government organisations carry out surveys and studies, which have a more limited sample base and scope.
The Census Act of 1948 does not state when a census should be conducted and when the results should be published; for example, some data from 2011 were released only in 2019.
As the preparatory phase takes at least a year, the new census is unlikely to be conducted before 2024. The Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, which reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs, draws up a house listing and then, in a second phase, moves to count the population.
It is not clear why the Modi government is not conducting the population census in India. Some Indian states proposed to include the caste census, an idea rejected by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Since 1951, no data have been collected concerning the four traditional Indian castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisya, Shudra); in theory, discrimination based on caste was abolished by the 1950Constitution.
In order to implement social policies, the Indian government uses a different terminology, namely “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes” (SCs and STs[*]), “other backward classes” (OBCs), and “forward castes" (FCs)[†]; the latter refers to the part of the population that is socially and economically superior (compared to OBCs, SCs and STs).
Notwithstanding the terms, the reality remains. In recent decades, only scheduled castes and tribes have been surveyed, while data on other disadvantaged groups date back to the early 2000s, once again preventing properly targeted welfare policies.
At a conference held in February this year at Oxford University, Dilip Mandal, former managing editor of India Today, explained how over time the BJP has changed its position on the caste census.
“During their first tenure, the BJP in 2018, through (then) Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh articulated a backing for a caste-based count and also made a statement regarding the same in Parliament. This happened for the OBC vote as later, Prime Minister Modi would pitch himself, in 2019, as an OBC leader”.
Then, in July 2021, in mid-pandemic, the BJP told Parliament that it would not include caste in the next census because it would “rekindle divisive feeling among people”. The paradox is that over the past few years, the ruling party has fuelled divisions through Hindutva (Hindu ultranationalism) propaganda in the media.
By contrast, opposition parties in states where castes still have strong social relevance – such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha (Orissa) – have called for a caste-based census to get a real overview of the makeup of the population.
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[*] Tribal groups and Dalits, also known as outcasts or untouchables.
[†] Also referred to as general class, general category or open category.