The demand for a caste census is likely to become a major political issue as the 2024 elections approach. After the Union government filed an affidavit to the Supreme Court claiming that a caste census cannot be linked to the already delayed 2021 decennial census, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) wrote letters to 33 leaders of different political parties demanding support for an immediate caste census. .
The demand for a caste census is not without context. It is linked to a request to remove the 50% limit on reserves imposed by the Supreme Court. Admittedly, this limit has already been exceeded after the establishment of reservations for the economically weaker sections among the communities that were until now excluded from the benefit of reservations. The demand for the removal of the 50% limit on reservations comes mainly from the leaders of the other backward classes (OBCs) who argue that their share in the population is well above the quota of 27% designated for the OBCs.
CBOs, from now on, are entitled to reservations not only on the basis of caste – unlike the case of the population of Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) – but also on a class criterion. It is therefore imperative that any census justifying the request for an increase in the reservation quota also examines the economic status of CBOs.
The results of the latest India Debt and Investment Survey (AIDIS) are helpful in answering this question. AIDIS was conducted in 2019 and is the most comprehensive official source of Indian household assets and liabilities. It gives data on assets and liabilities as of June 30, 2018. Here are four charts that summarize what AIDIS tells us about the economic situation of CBOs in India.
How representative is AIDIS in measuring household wealth?
Some National Sample Survey (NSSO) databases tend to underestimate the wealthy in India. Is this also the case with AIDIS? According to AIDIS, the average assets of the richest 10% of households in rural and urban areas were ??81.2 lakh and ??1.5 crore. The richest household in AIDIS had assets of ??72.3 crore in rural areas and ??114.8 crore in urban areas. This suggests that while AIDIS excludes the really super-rich in the country, it covers a significant portion of the rich.
See Figure 1: Average household assets in rural and urban areas in India
What about average assets by social group?
AIDIS allows us to separate households into four major social groups: SC, ST, OBC and others. An examination of the average assets of each social group highlights the role of caste in economic inequality. The average asset levels of households that do not belong to the SC, ST or OBC groups are significantly higher, not only vis-à-vis the SC-ST population but also the OBCs.
See graph 2: average assets of CS, ST, CBO and others in rural and urban areas
But all groups show high levels of intra-group inequality in India
While average asset levels show a relationship with social groups, there are also large intra-group economic inequalities. This is best seen in the fact that the Gini coefficient for the distribution of assets in each of the social groups is quite high; 0.62 for SC, 0.64 for OBC, 0.67 for ST and 0.69 for others. The Gini coefficient can take values between 0 and 1, where 0 denotes perfect equality and 1 perfect inequality.
Another way to describe intragroup inequality within social groups can be to compare the assets held by the richest ten percent versus the poorest 50% within each group. The richest 10% of CBOs own 5.51 times the total assets held by the poorest 50% of CBO households. This number is 4.45 for SC households, 5.90 for ST and 7.97 for those who do not belong to the SC-ST-OBC groups.
See graph 3: Lorenz curve for the distribution of assets between social groups
It also means that CBOs are not under-represented among the rich.
The most common rhetoric while arguing for the removal of the 50% reservation limit to accommodate more CBOs is that they are among the poorest in India. An analysis of the AIDIS data shows that this is at best a half-truth. Because CBOs are the largest social group in India, even a small share among the rich are compatible with as many CBOs in these ranks as other social groups, especially those that do not belong to SC-ST groups. -OBC. A HT analysis of data at AIDIS unit level shows that CBOs had the largest share among households in each decile class, with the exception of the top 10%, where households outside the SC-ST- groups. OBC account for almost half of the total share. The overall share of OBC and non SC-ST-OBC households in AIDIS is 43.5% and 27.2%. Simply put, CBOs dominate the ranks of the rich and the poor.
See graph 4: share of each social group of households belonging to the asset decile class
CBOs are the largest population group, but they are far from a homogeneous cohort, both socially and economically. The Union government recognizes 2,479 OBC sub-castes in its 2018 list, according to the Department of Social Justice website. In 2017, the current government set up Judge Rohini’s commission to sub-stratify the reservation for CBOs on the grounds that certain sub-castes had disproportionately benefited from the policy. Because there is no data on the population of the sub-castes, let alone the socio-economic aspects of the CBOs, it is difficult to answer whether the economic inequalities between the CBOs are a function of the sub-caste.
The AIDIS figures cited above highlight the problems of any argument selling reservation as a silver bullet to the socio-economic deprivation of CBOs in India. Reservations offer only one advantage in the competition for government jobs, which are on a declining trajectory from an already small base in India.
Given the intra-group inequalities within CBOs, relatively well-off people are more likely to take advantage of these opportunities. Any effort to tip the balance in favor of disadvantaged CBOs risks meeting resistance from the Mandal-era parties, where the dominant CBOs are at the helm.