Data Discomfort

Silence on Caste Inequality

Yogendra Yadav

Whether it’s economic status or educational and employment opportunities, caste remains the principal factor in India.

If the first round of caste ‘census’ data in Bihar established that caste count was possible and useful, the second tranche of data has established beyond doubt that a nationwide caste census is essential to combat social inequalities in today’s India. To those who needed evidence, the recently released data from Bihar demonstrates that caste matters. Caste continues to be a determinant of educational opportunities, a robust indicator of economic status, and a gateway to decent employment opportunities.

Predictably, no one wants to look at this data. The entire debate on pros and cons of caste census focused not on the census but on the merits and demerits of reservation. Now that the data has been released, the focus is mainly on the 65 percent quota. Or on a casual (though ill-thought and indecent) remark by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, so as to hijack the entire debate away from the real issue of caste inequalities. As and when the media has bothered to report the findings of this ‘census’, it has highlighted some perfunctory or generic data on Bihar‘s poverty or levels of education. Such data has always been around. No one seems to be interested in the fresh data on caste inequalities.

What is really new about this caste census data in Bihar? The first tranche of data released last month–the X-ray–had offered jaati-wise population estimates that were not available since 1931. It established that backward castes–BC as well as EBC–numbered much more than expected. And the dominant ‘upper castes’ were numerically much smaller. The data released lately–more like an MRI–provides jaati-wise socio-economic profile.

Specifically, the recent data provides economic status by way of family income, ownership of vehicles and computers, educational level of each member of family, and employment status for each person. All this data is available by each caste group and for each jaati separately. Though it has not been released, yet this break-up should be available for each district, each bloc, each village, and indeed for each family. This is a goldmine of sociological information that will be used by policy makers and researchers for decades to come. Since this data is not limited only to backward or disadvantaged sections and includes the ‘upper’ caste as well, people have for the first time a social profile of three dimensions of privileges in terms of economic status, educational attainments, and employment secured.

Since much of the analysis is based on self-reported family income (which can be dodgy since people tend to under- report), one needs to double check it with data on ownership of vehicles (from two-wheeler to six-wheeler) and computers (with or without internet). At the lower end of the income spectrum, one finds poverty distributed across all caste categories. Even among the ‘upper’ castes, one-fourth is very poor, with a family income of less than Rs 6,000 per month. The proportion increases gently to 33 percent among the BC and EBC, and 43 percent among the SC and ST.

The slope is very steep when one looks at the upper end of economic privileges of those who report Rs 50,000 or more as their family monthly income. The proportion of these ‘rich’ families is just around 2 per cent for SC and EBC. It rises to 4 percent for the BC and shoots up to 10 percent among the General or the upper caste. This trend is corroborated by the data on laptop ownership (a proxy for material educational opportunities) and vehicle ownership (a proxy for economic assets). Interestingly, among the upper caste, the richest are the Kayasthas and not landed communities like Bhumihars and Rajputs. Among the OBCs, the numerically largest group of Yadav is substantially poorer than Kurmis or Banias (who are BC in Bihar) or even the Kushwahas.

The caste-wise data on education shows an even sharper slope than the economy. These include postgraduate degrees like MA, M Sc or M Com along with engineering or medical degrees and higher qualifications like PhD or CA. Here the impact of centuries of caste privileges and prohibition on learning are very stark. A Dalit in Bihar is ten times less likely to obtain any of these quality degrees than the upper castes. The difference is staggering. Of every 10,000 people, 1089 Kayasthas (traditional literary community) possess these employment-worthy degrees. The corresponding figure for Musahar, at the lowest rung within the Scheduled Castes, is just 1 out of every 10,000 persons.

Interestingly, Bhumihars are more educated than Brahmins, though the proportion for both is less than half of the Kayasthas. The traditional savarna/shudra divide continues to filter educational opportunities. The proportion of Backward Castes with high degrees is less than one third of the General category. The proportion among the EBCs is less than half of that among the BCs. There are very serious disparities within the BCs. Yadavs stand at 0.82 percent while Kurmis are three times higher, at 2.4 percent.

One critical insight of this census relates to the internal division within Muslims. The data on economic and educational status confirms that Syed Muslims are quite like the Hindu ‘upper’ castes, though Sheikhs and Pathans appear to be miss-classified as ‘General’, because their economic and educational profile fits in more with the ‘backward class’ category. Malik Muslims, who are currently classified as BC, approximate the economic and educational profile of the General category. This demonstrates the relevance of caste census for fine-tuning the reservation policy.

Disparities in the economic and educational opportunities reflect directly in the occupational profile. Less than 3 percent of Bihar‘s population is employed in the ‘organised sector’ jobs with regular salary, PF, and perhaps pension. This proportion is nearly 7 percent among the upper caste but drops to 2.8 percent among the BCs and 1.7 percent among the EBCs.

The break-up of organised sector jobs between government jobs and private sector jobs shows a clear contrast. The ‘upper’ castes have cornered disproportionately bigger share in both these categories, still higher in the private sector. Here, again, the Kayasthas outstrip everyone else in the proportion of government as well as private sector jobs. The Backward Caste share goes down in the private sector. Within the broad grouping of OBCs, the upper segment (that is the BC in Bihar)have cornered more jobs than the numerically larger segment of the EBC. A comparison of the proportion of Dalits, who managed to get organised sector jobs in the government sector (1.13 percent) and in the private sector (less than half at 0.51 percent) is a neat illustration of what the condition of Dalits would have been if they had no advantage of reservation in government jobs.

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Vol 56, No. 24, Dec 10 - 16, 2023