Inside the survey to enumerate India’s oldest fault line | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Inside the survey to enumerate India’s oldest fault line

Apr 17, 2024 07:57 PM IST

Once the operative part of the exercise got off the ground, it became clear that enumerating 29 million households was no easy task

Patna The muddy expanse of the Ganga stretched out in front of her, Afreen Jahan waited on the sandy shores on the outskirts of Patna one Monday morning in early May, her face and hands draped in a dupatta. Before her, snaking into the distance was a pontoon bridge, hundreds of metal decks grating against each other, bobbing up and down in the gentle current of the summer river. Large auto-rickshaws, cars, and a train of motorcycles sputtered nervously across the undulating length of the visibly unstable bridge, dismantled at the cusp of every monsoon. On the other side lay one of the dozens of Gangetic riverine islands, diara in local parlance, that fall in the shadow of whatever meagre development funds trickle into the region. One of those diaras is where the 32-year-old worked, as a teacher of Urdu.

The Patna high court suspended the <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>500 crore caste survey exercise for close to three months, before dismissing all objections on August 1. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
The Patna high court suspended the 500 crore caste survey exercise for close to three months, before dismissing all objections on August 1. (HT Photo)

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For about 20 days beginning April 15, Jahan followed a tight schedule. She left her house on the outskirts of Patna around 6.30 am, took a shared ride in a hulking auto-rickshaw squished with nine to 10 other people, then another across the river, arriving at her school in Patlapur village two hours later. There, inside one of the rooms with peeling white paint and tattered sketches of children’s drawings pasted on the wall, were stacked piles upon piles of forms; broadsheet sized and chequered black-and-white. Jahan would pick up some and be back on the road by 9 am, knocking at the doors of houses that had them, or hollering names outside the mud-caked ones.

The trick was to get there early, before the men left for their fields, and the women became busy with housework. Once inside, Jahan pulled out the form that listed 17 indicators, and her blue pen to mark or check little black squares on the form. Furrows formed on her forehead if the answer didn’t match her expectation. The questions rolled off her tongue – name, father or husband’s name, age, gender, marital status, religion, educational qualification, occupation, state of the household, migrant status, whether the house has a computer or laptop, car, farmland, or residential land, sources of income, and caste. “We know most of the locals so filing their details isn’t tough. We know them already,” she said.

Yet, it was the last question, caste, that made the exercise Jahan was undertaking -- a state-wise household to household caste survey, or census if you will, alongside 320,000 other enumerators -- just so extraordinary. It was this question that prompted the Patna high court to suspend the 500 crore exercise for close to three months, before dismissing all objections on August 1. And it is this question based on which a batch of petitions are now pending before the Supreme Court, which will now hear the case on August 18.

India has not successfully completed a physical headcount of its castes since 1931, and though some states (such as Karnataka in 2017) have tried since then, none of those details are in the public domain. With the high court clearing the decks, Bihar is now the site of the politically charged intervention to tackle what is India’s oldest fault-line. As the exercise ended this week, HT delved into what went into this mammoth exercise that can reshape elections, governance and community relations.

The rewiring of caste

The idea of this caste count germinated in Bihar when the current government was not even in power. Then in opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) used the idea of a count of all castes to put pressure on the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, only to find a surprising backer in the Janata Dal (United), then leading the government in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party. A resolution in the assembly and an all-party delegation to the Prime Minister later, in June 2022, chief minister Nitish Kumar announced that his government was about to announce a caste count. By the middle of August 2022, Kumar had parted ways with his old alliance partner, the BJP, and joined hands with his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend RJD.

The idea was simple. In the original playground of Mandal -- the rewiring of heartland politics began in Bihar in the late 1960s, fronted by a young generation of lower-caste leaders and nurtured by the likes of former CM Karpoori Thakur -- a physical count of castes would likely set off a churn within entrenched community relationships, and if it revealed that some communities had cornered a lion’s share of the resources, would likely trigger demands for caste-based proportional redistribution of resources. That the two biggest post-Mandal parties were votaries of the idea also showed that they believed that the survey could help them effect caste-based mobilisations to counter the BJP’s welfare-plus-Hindutva push fronted by PM Narendra Modi’s popularity that has, at the national level and in multiple states, built a durable rainbow Hindu coalition.

This idea further took root when the demand for a caste census coalesced into a national opposition demand at the Bengaluru meeting where the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) was announced. The thinking was that any new caste churning posed a threat to the BJP’s omnibus coalition because it would set off contrasting demands from communities that compete for resources on the ground, helping the Opposition.

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There was also another goal. For Kumar, who has forged an identity as a social engineer and built a durable social coalition by hiving off parts of the OBC blocs into Extremely Backward Castes and Most Backward Castes, the exercise presented an opportunity to consolidate a base increasingly fragmented by the BJP’s onslaught.

Once the operative part of the exercise got off the ground, however, it became clear that enumerating 29 million households was no easy task. For one, officials were keen to not repeat the missteps of the 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census, whose caste data never saw the light of day, allegedly because it was unusable. The 2011 exercise, for instance, returned a clutch of surnames and caste names that were similar phonetically but spelt differently, and these subtle differences could have meant major differences in their caste statuses. “In the absence of predetermined categories, such diversity became impossible to handle and decipher,” said a former official involved in the process. “Though it was a small sample, around 10%, it meant the whole process was seen as compromised,” said a second former official, requesting anonymity.

Bihar attempted to bypass these problems by notifying 203 castes and assigning them a particular code. In this list, there were seven “forward” castes — four among Hindus, Rajput, Kayastha, Brahmin and Bhumihar; and three among Muslims, Sheikh, Pathan and Syed. The rest had some form of reservation. The extremely backward castes (EBC) – a patchwork coalition of small coalitions stitched together by Kumar in the 1990s – made up the bulk at 112 caste groups, followed by backward castes (BC) at 30, Scheduled Tribe (ST) at 32, and Scheduled Castes (SC) at 22, said a Bihar government official familiar with the classification. The government added 11 more castes that district magistrates said specifically existed in their respective jurisdictions, and issued a final booklet with the codes of 215 castes (including an others) category.

The caste census on the ground

To get the mammoth exercise off the ground, Bihar marshalled an army of teachers, social service volunteers, education volunteers and anganwadi workers, paying them 10,000 for the entire exercise. They were trained in batches for a month between March 13 and April 11 by officials of the general administration department, the nodal agency driving the caste survey, with assistance from a technical support team from the Bihar State Electronics Development Corporation, a government undertaking, and software developer Trigyn Technologies, a Maharashtra-based firm that had previous experience in aiding the development of the CoWIN app during the pandemic. “Each enumerator was told how to download the Bijaga (Bihar Jati Ganana) app, how to feed in their password and username and use the drop down menus, which were written in Hindi to make things easier,” said a trainer, requesting anonymity.

Large printed booklets with the caste codes were also photocopied and circulated. Yet, within a few hours of its launch, there were problems. Anganwadi worker Munni Devi found that she had installed the app on her son’s phone, not hers. Government social service volunteer Ambika Ram realised that the mobile network was too unreliable to use the app for uploading details, and hence photocopied paper forms to first input the details in pencil. Supervisor Prafulla Kumar was inundated with calls from enumerators who had gone to households and realised that someone in the family had died or migrated, or had more members than what was earlier recorded, or had space for in the forms provided. And in almost every house, they were faced with the question – isse kuch milega kya? (Will we get something out of this?)

“The app started to load slowly. Which is why we photocopied the main data form, told my son to fill it in pencil and then we’d feed it into the app later, shanti mein (in peace),” Ram said.

In the heart of Patna, Indu Kumari, 42, empathised with Ram. A government schoolteacher near Golghar, Kumari led a team of six enumerators, five women and one man, tasked with the door-to-door enumeration within a 500m radius of what is Patna’s most select neighbourhood. “Some forms we submitted online didn’t reach our supervisor, while others took 2-3 days,” said an enumerator of her team, requesting anonymity. “The app got frequently logged out after the submission of individual form, and the time lag was enormous,” said Kumari.

The reiteration of caste

Still, one problem none of the 10 enumerators that HT spoke to faced was in determining caste. Whether in Hindu households or Muslim, the question of caste met with matter-of-fact responses, sometimes prompted by the documenters themselves. “We are all locals going from house to house, and in villages, almost everyone knows each other’s caste. So, there was no question of hiding or feeling awkward. It’s a fact of life,” said Ram.

It is this peculiar aspect of caste that was at the core of the high court proceedings – can caste identity ever be private, or be safeguarded under privacy guarantees, given its ramifications on equality, and its ubiquitous presence as a social marker in India? Some petitioners argued that sharing survey data publicly would amount to breaching the privacy of individuals. But the high court eventually upheld the exercise as “perfectly valid and initiated with due competence”.

Outside the courtroom, however, the verdict depended on who you spoke to. Between selling boxes of fruits at the Bakhtiarpur market, Kalu Paswan was clear that the caste survey was necessary, if only to show that everyone, not just his family, carried caste markers. “They never let us forget our caste, it shapes every ritual and festival in our village. Hum kyu unko bhulne de (why should we let them forget)?” he asked. Across the Hiramandi, Prabhat Kumar, who runs a furnishing showroom, was more circumspect. “I have never asked anyone’s caste. Why do they want to bring it into our lives? Hasn’t it done enough damage,” he said.

Yet, this difference melted away as one moved from the cities into the hinterland, where caste was both matter-of-fact and widely acknowledged. In India’s least urbanised major state, it is this candidness around caste that helped. “In fact, people often fumbled with income or identity proofs. Caste was almost never a problem,” said Jahan.

The daunting part of the exercise – one where SECC stumbled – of calculation and tallying of castes still remains. And many residents are already complaining that they were left out. “Only some people out of the 100-plus residential flats have been covered in our residential society,” said Amarendra Kumar, a resident of Jyoti Puram Society in Patna. District authorities said that they sent enumerators to the housing block later, and collected data from all those willing to share them after an alert was raised.

Read here: Samastipur SHO, 47, shot in the head during raid, succumbs to injuries: Bihar Police

For Jahan and her cohort, though, there is pride in a job they once thought would be impossible. Munni Devi can now work a smartphone and knows better than to trust her son’s availability when he’s out with friends. Ambika Ram has graduated to using an Android screen from a push button mobile. There is pride beyond the personal because there is a sense that they have been part of something unprecedented, potentially seismic in Bihar’s politics. When Jahan now sets off from home, boards the dingy, sweaty boat to arrive at the school in the diara across the Ganga, she is no longer just Patlapur’s Urdu teacher. She is Patlapur’s enumerator.T

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