Bureaucracy Matters

How to get Caste Certificate

Johanna Deeksha

The caste certificates are meant to help marginalised students access opportunities. But often, the process of obtaining them only oppresses students further.

When Selvam Muthukumar’s son completed his Class 12 studies a year ago, it should have been a time for celebration. But instead, an old burden resurfaced in Muthukumar’s life.

The family belongs to the Kattunayakar tribal community in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district. Muthukumar knew that to secure his son’s admission in a college under a reservation quota, and to access funding support, his son would need a community certificate, issued by the government. The document is essential for members of India’s marginalised communities to avail of government benefits meant for them, which include reservations in employment and, for students, scholarships and reservations in education.

But Muthukumar’s son did not have one.

Procuring the certificate would have been easier if Muthukumar himself had one–but he, too, did not have one.

In fact, Muthukumar, who is 42 years old, has been trying to obtain a certificate for himself for 30 years, with no luck.

The tribal community he belongs to traditionally reared pigs for a living. But Muthukumar works in construction and has never reared pigs in his life; neither had his parents. Yet other members of his community have often advised him to keep a few pigs in his house so that if revenue officers visit, they will believe he is Kattunayakan and issue him the certificate.

Indeed, he has seen revenue officers who have visited the homes of other members of his community in the past ask them similar questions. “I remember they would ask us details about the gods we worship, all our rituals, and would make us show that we knew how to handle pigs”, he said.

Krithika Srinivasan, a journalist based in Villupuram, said that officials regularly put people through such tests. She explained that these methods of verification were created in a different era and that lifestyles had changed over the years, but that there was little awareness amongst officials about this.

Muthukumar has not heeded the advice he received: he lacks the space in his house to keep pigs, and the time to rear them. Further, said, “My children have no interest in rearing pigs, I want them to study so that they can sit in an office and do work”.

For decades, Muthukumar has been made to run around in circles in government offices. (He and other applicants are referred to by pseudonyms for this article, since they feared reprisal from government authorities for talking to the media.)

In this time, whenever he and five members of his extended family who are also seeking certificates visited a government office, they repeatedly received some version of the same response: they were asked to return the following week, or the following month. Together, they have spent Rs 1 lakh so far on brokers who claimed that they would facilitate the process. “About three months ago, I spent Rs 20,000 on someone who promised to help me with the certificate”, Muthukumar said.

But the certificate never came.

The last time that officers visited Muthukumar’s home to verify his claims was eight years ago.

Students check their hall ticket numbers ahead of an exam. At both the school and college level, community certificates help students access reservations and scholarships.

Some colleges offered to give him some extra time to submit the certificate, but Muthukumar did not know when, or even if, his son would be able to obtain one. He had no choice but to ask his son to delay his college application by a year.

Across the country, if a student wishes to avail of opportunities available to members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, they must at the very least furnish a community certificate with their application. These certificates are commonly referred to as “caste certificates”, though they may be issued to an individual from a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe. As Muthu-kumar’s story shows, obtaining this certificate is far from easy.

“It is true that students struggle to get community certificates”, said Paul Diwakar, chair of the Asia Dalit Rights Forum. “We hear of such cases all the time”. Diwakar argued that the onus should not be on students to prove their identity and that instead, the government should bear the responsibility of identifying those who are eligible and providing community certificates to them.

“It is unfortunate that even after 75 years of Independence, we still don’t have a system in place that allows for students to get their community certificates without any hassle”, he said. “We’ve been able to get the whole country Aadhaar cards but this we are still struggling with?”

Typically, a key requirement is that applicants have to submit their father’s or another paternal relative’s community certificate. They must then usually prove their links with that relative, with a document such as a birth certificate. They must also usually prove their own, or that relative’s, place of residence, with a document such as an electricity bill, a property tax receipt or a ration card.

Applications are processed at the level of the tehsildar, who has a great deal of discretionary power over what documents to demand. The tehsildar may also choose to pay a visit to the applicant’s home to conduct a background check, sometimes resulting in crude inquiries such as the ones Muthukumar was warned about.

For many students, the problem starts with the first requirement, of submitting proof that their father belongs to the community in question. Often, as in Muthukumar’s case, students are first-generation learners whose parents do not possess documents that can prove their community origins.

Krithika Srinivasan, a journalist in Villupuram, said applicants for community certificates are often asked to prove their knowledge of the community's traditional occupation, even if they have no links with the work.

In Anil Rajat’s case, a technicality nearly cost him his certificate. Rajat’s family had lived in Maharashtra all his life, and Rajat was required to submit a document, like an older relative’s school leaving certificate, or a land ownership or lease record, to show that his family had been living in Maharashtra on or before August 10, 1950.

Rajat’s grandfather had lived in a small village near Nagpur city till 1954, when he moved to the city for work opportunities. That year, the family settled on a piece of land developed by the Nagpur Improvement Trust, a local civic government body.

Nearly 70 years later, the family still has the lease document between the trust and Rajat’s grandfather as proof of residence in the city. “To bolster my claim, I had submitted the lease deed by Nagpur Improvement Trust dated May 5, 1954, which had mentioned that land on lease had been provided to the Scheduled Caste community”, Rajat said.

But the document was rejected because it was from 1954, four years after the specified cut-off date. At the office, Rajat was not given any assistance, and was just told to go to the tehsildar’s office to find any other land records that might help his case. “How is one supposed to know where to go and whom to ask?” he said. “It is such a difficult space to navigate when you don’t know anybody in the system”.

Raghav Kumar, who hails from Bihar’s Gaya district, also recounted undergoing an ordeal to procure his caste certificate.

“In Bihar, it is very difficult”, he said. “If you are left to get the job done on your own, then you just find yourself lost in the system”. At the tehsildar office, there was no one to explain to him how it was to be done. “Unless you know someone on the inside, it is impossible”, he said.

Like Rajat, he, too, was approached by brokers. “They know we are desperate”, he said.

Sometimes, he would have to call a clerk three or four times before the clerk chose to respond to him. “They would keep asking me to come back next week,” Kumar said. “Sometimes they would wait until it was my turn and then say it was tea time.” Even when the certificate had been prepared, he added, “they would not tell us when it was ready to be picked up from the office.”

If obtaining a caste certificate wasn’t frustrating enough, students often also have to submit a caste or tribe “validity certificate” to prove that their certificates are authentic.

This is essentially a document that states that another document– the community certificate–is valid and true. Validity certificates were introduced about 20 years ago, ostensibly because a large number of fake community certificates had come into circulation.

In order to procure the validity certificate, a student has to submit to the authorities their own community certificate, along with some combination of various other supporting documents, including the father or a close paternal relative’s community certificate, and their validity certificate.

“These validity certificates are harder to get”, said Rajiv Khobra-gade, a member of the Nagpur-based organisation The Platform, which provides students from marginalised communities support with admission and scholarship applications. “The number of documents that the students are required to produce to the government to validate their community certificates are so many, that students fail to gather these in time for their admissions or to meet scholarship deadlines”, he explained.

Khobragade said he knew of students who had lost out on opportunities because they could not procure validity certificates, or procured them late. Sometimes, bureaucratic errors can shatter families’ hopes. This was the nature of the problem Pavithra Peter faced, which left her in despair after each visit to her son James’s school hostel, around 15 km from her home in Kodaikanal, in Dindigul district.

When she was interviewed in August, Peter explained that she was distressed by her son’s repeated questions about whether he would be able to go to college or not–he was a good student and aspired to study chemistry. But with each passing month, she felt more and more concerned that the answer would be in the negative.

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Vol 55, No. 38, Mar 19 - 25, 2023